When Dareth Ly asks Cambodian kids who live on a river, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” he already knows how most will answer.
“They think that life for them will be just like their parents’ lives. You grow up, and then you just catch fish.”
Dareth was born near Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. He knows what it is like to not be able to dream about opportunities. Much of Dareth’s childhood was a living nightmare.
In April 1975, after the Communist Khmer Rouge forces captured Phnom Penh, dictator Pol Pot ordered the execution of the educated and forced uneducated city-dwellers into countryside labor camps where they were re-educated and forced to grow food for the army. Under the Khmer Rouge reign, nearly a quarter of the population — roughly 2 million Cambodians — died from starvation, disease, overwork, and torture and execution. Dareth was almost one of them.
During the Cambodian Genocide, 7-year-old Dareth was separated from his family and sent to a labor camp. Dareth ate anything he could find — roots, grass and insects. He was tortured and forced to watch the murder of other labor camp friends. After four years of daily digging irrigation ditches and building dikes in rice paddies, Dareth managed to escape when the Vietnamese overthrew the camp’s Khmer Rouge soldiers.
As an orphaned refugee, 11-year-old Dareth ended up in foster care in Minnesota. While other boys his age were dreaming of becoming pro athletes or firefighters, Dareth’s dreams were interrupted by cruel flashbacks to Cambodia’s Killing Fields.
“The psychological trauma surfaced, and I would wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat,” Dareth recalls. “I couldn’t communicate my nightmares to my foster mother and other people because I didn’t have the words.”
Dareth knows it’s often difficult for children in turmoil and poverty to find words to describe their struggles or to ask for help. That is why today he brings compassion and empathy to his work with OneChild in Cambodia. Dareth is also committed to surrounding young people with Christian mentors. Much like the godly mentors who helped turn his life around after the 14-year-old placed his trust in Christ at a Bible retreat in Minnesota.
“As a teenager, there were several men at church that took me under their wings and mentored me. They gave me love and affection, and because of that, my life changed,” Dareth explains. “I’m with OneChild today because of those men. Through their kindness, through their love, God used those Child Champions to really make a difference in my life.”
Several months after becoming a Christ follower, Dareth’s nightmares vanished. But as much as he tried, he could not forget about his homeland. Three years after marrying Thida, a fellow Killing Fields survivor whom he met in college, they moved to northwest Cambodia as full-time missionaries and advocates for underserved children and their families.
In their partnership with OneChild, Dareth oversees three different Hope Centers, which he also established. One is a floating school for kids who live in the village of Mechrey, a cluster of shanties built on bamboo rafts on the waters of Tonlé Sap Lake, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia.
For the past 20 years, OneChild has provided nutrient-rich meals to children who go to the floating school; and multivitamins, school supplies, school uniforms, and health checkups from visiting doctors. Sponsors and their letters are also a lifeline of love and encouragement to the kids and their families.
“Through the children, we are bringing the message of hope to the parents as well,” Dareth explains. Dareth’s mission is to raise up Cambodia’s first generation of Christians who will transform Cambodia. Dareth shares, “People have come to know God. God has changed their hearts, and this gives them hope for the future.”
Part of that bold, new future starts when the kids at the floating school finish 6th grade and have the opportunity to attend 7th through 12th grade at Dareth’s Dream Center in the town of Siem Reap. Dareth envisioned the Dream Center and 15 years ago, with help from OneChild donors, Dareth had the Dream Center built to give students who live too far away to commute the opportunity to continue education beyond 6th grade. Today, OneChild helps fund the Dream Center to board students from the floating school.
Teachers there offer traditional educational courses, plus classes in music, computers, and other vocational skills. Students also receive spiritual guidance and discipleship.
Some Dream Center graduates have attended college too and attained careers and professions to help support their families.
Dareth says, “We named our school the ‘Dream Center’ for a purpose because we want to give kids dreams, but not just any dreams. God’s given dream for them. Right now, if you were to ask these kids, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ they would have all kinds of answers for you. They want to be teachers, they want to be doctors. Those goals did not happen before the Dream Center.”
“They want to be teachers, they want to be doctors. Those goals did not happen before the Dream Center.”