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Colorado native ventures to Phnom Penh after family strife during the Cambodian Genocide


Kanitha Heng(center left) with some of the first year students at the Harpswell Foundation     Photo Courtesy: Kanitha Heng

For Colorado native Kanitha Heng, her three-month trip to Cambodia is extremely personal. Kanitha will live in Phnom Penh, teaching and leading college age Cambodian women. However, her journey begins with challenge on an intensely emotional level.  Nearly 40 years ago, her own parents narrowly escaped the massive killings of the Khmer Rouge. Most of their family was tragically killed. Kanitha’s parents are survivors and now Heng must face those stories of survival first hand.

Headed by Pol Pot, the Communist Party of Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge, took over the country in the 1970s. Throughout the decade, the group ordered the destruction of cities and the educated elite in order to make the country more rural. The number of deaths has been debated, but it is believe to be about 1.7 million people from 1975 through 1979. Vietnamese, Chinese, Muslims, and Buddhist monks were entirely eliminated by expulsion, execution, and starvation. What has been called the Cambodia Genocide is deemed one of the worst human tragedies of the last century.

Kanitha’s parents somehow escaped, running village to village through landmines until reaching the Thai border. Both actually met at a Thai refugee camp before immigrating to America and starting a family. Some may ask how Kanitha can even go. Her answer is simple, “It is something I have to do. I really don’t know who I am, Cambodian or American.”

Kanitha joins the Harpswell Foundation, an organization based in Cambodia due to the need for education after the Khmer Rouge killings. The Foundation itself sets out with the goal of providing education, housing and leadership training to children and young women in the developing world.

The Harpswell Foundation granted Kanitha one of their esteemed Leadership Residences, a program allowing non-Cambodian women in their twenties to come to Phnom Penh and serve as role models and teachers to college age women. Specifically, the Harpswell organized and constructed a Leadership Center for Women where Kanitha teaches English and leads young women. Kanitha lives with 34 other women in the dorms, under 24-hour security. Heng is the first in the leadership program actually of Cambodian descent, serving as an ideal role model. “I think I can show them a different side as I am Cambodian, I went to college and I graduated.”  Kanitha graduated from prestigious Colgate University in May of 2009.

The Leadership Center for Women provides housing to women from the provinces of Cambodia who are attending university in Phnom Penh. Generally female students from rural areas do not have a place to live, ceasing their chance at receiving higher education. The center selects these Cambodian women based upon intelligence, ambition and leadership potential. The dorm alone remains one of the first student housing options in the entire country.

Kanitha’s interest in helping these young women in her familial country does not come without elements of danger. She is not going as a tourist to sample the exotic insect and fish delicacies. “It is different for me because I am Cambodian so it could be more dangerous.”

As most families in Colorado gather around for the holidays, Kanitha gathers around women not far from her age, helping them, leading them. Kanitha’s fearless attitude towards living in a country where her family experienced such tragedy is nothing short of remarkable, sure to inspire anyone around the holidays with her incredible story.

To follow Kanitha's journey, read her posts on her blog. She will be blogging from Phnom Penh for three months.

For more the Harpswell Foundation, visit their website.

First year students at the Leadership Center for Women in Phnom Penh, Cambodia                            Photo Courtesy of Kanitha Heng


  • Jeannette 5 years ago

    Great story

  • Ted Nelson 5 years ago

    Very interesting. Cambodia definitely needs her. I spent 10 days in Cambodia a couple of years ago and the poverty is appalling.

  • Lynn Farris 5 years ago

    Powerful story.