The entire class stands and bows as I enter the room,
and then waves for the camera. Here in northern Cambodia, still recovering from a genocidal civil war decades ago, good manners are important. So is a good education. Bernie Krisher would be the first to tell you that.
I first met Bernie in a hotel in San Francisco. Although he lives in Tokyo, he was in the United States for a fundraising mission to benefit his projects in Asia. Particularly Cambodia, where the retired journalist has personally built almost 600 schools in the more remote regions of that impoverished country. If I built a single one, I’d be a happy camper.
That’s not a typo. One thin and frail elderly man has built 600 schools, by himself? How? Why? One of his new pet projects called Bright Future Kids explains everything. “The idea is,” says Bernie, “even for children living in extreme poverty the sky is the limit if they’re ambitious.”
Bernie was born in Germany and escaped to America in 1942 as millions of Jews were exterminated in World War Two. When Bernie was 8, he earned pocket money by delivering newspapers and by age 12 he’d started his own magazine. By the age of 14, he’d honed his skills of approaching the rich and famous. “I have a picture of Babe Ruth shaking my hand,” he remembers. “I simply went to his house and knocked on his door.”
During the Vietnam War Bernie became bureau chief in Asia for Newsweek and after stayed in Asia to reside. He founded the wildly successful Focus magazine in 1981 and later joined Fortune Magazine. Nothing but ambitious, his philanthropic goals are even higher.
In 1993, Krisher founded American Assistance for Cambodia, a non-profit organization aimed at giving hope to the Cambodian people following the extermination of 2 million citizens during the insane Khmer Rouge regime. He built Sihanouk Hospital of Hope in the capital of Phnom Penh that treats the poor for free. He founded and publishes The Cambodia Daily, dedicated to training young journalists in a free press. In 2008, Krisher also founded the Burma Daily.
Although unknown in North America, Bernie’s humanitarian work has become legendary in Asia. In northern Cambodia, each sunrise finds scooter-borne “Motomen” zigzagging along dirt roads like the pony express of old in the remote countryside. The scooters carry Wi-Fi modems with an antenna for uploading and downloading emails for transmission to and from satellite. Designed by Bernie’s friends at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, this high-tech wireless Internet system allows remote villages to tap in to the outside world. He’s also installed similar Wi-Fi systems to buses in India to allow poor villagers to become connected to the world wide web.
I asked Bernie how he somehow managed to accomplish all this. Why, he’s built more schools and hospitals than the government! “It’s simple,” he replies. “I have a large Rolodex built up from my days as bureau chief of Newsweek, and I don’t take ‘no’ for an answer.”
Bernie subsequently founded Girls Be Ambitious, an initiative aimed at encouraging poor farmers to allow their daughters to attend school in return for monthly stipends. In rural Cambodia, girls are routinely relegated to menial work, and their lack of education makes them vulnerable to human traffickers who lure them into indentured service in the big city as sex slaves.
“For the poor, 90 percent of opportunities are closed,” he says, “but these kids are going to be movers and shakers.” You see, if you follow the vision of Bernie Krisher, the sky is the limit if you’re ambitious.
For more information log on to http://www.cambodiaschools.com