Foreign Aid

A onetime Jewish refugee brings the Internet and hope to Cambodia’s most destitute children



Tibor Krausz

The Jerusalem Report, December 25, 2006

Phnom Penh


Chin Davin is a doe-eyed petite little eight-year-old and it’s her first day in the new village school. With 50 or so other second graders, she sits with her arms folded politely in front of her on a varnished new desk, looking up at her teacher with eager anticipation.

Davin lives in Beung Kluy, a community of subsistence farmers some 70 miles northeast of Phnom Penh, which has no electricity, phone line or piped water. Yet soon, she will be learning how to surf the Internet and communicate with the outside world.

Bernie Krisher with children during the opening of a primary school

When the teacher calls on her to answer questions by an inquisitive foreigner with a notepad, Davin stands courteously to attention, bows her head slightly, and presses her palms together in a sompeah, the traditional sign of respect. Her mom sells fruit from a basket beside a nearby highway and his dad drives a tricycle taxi, the girl explains. No, she has never seen a computer. Yes, she’d like to learn to use one very much. “I want to be a teacher so I can teach all my friends in the village,” she adds and smiles.

Thanks to a benevolent Jewish man, she now has the chance. Davin and tens of thousands of other underprivileged children across this backward, war-torn land where only one in three people can read are learning English and computer use — skills that could help them to lift themselves out of poverty.

For the past seven years, Bernard Krisher, a 75-year-old German-born Jewish immigrant who grew up in New York and now lives in Tokyo, has been building one school after another after another — 313 in all so far and still counting — across rural Cambodia at a cost of $25,000 each. The schools are financed by private donors in the U.S. and Japan (with a matching fund from the Asian Development Bank), recruited by Krisher. 

And they’re not just any old schools, either. Take those in Ratanakiri Province, for instance. A remote region in Northeast Cambodia, a grueling day-long drive northeast along potholed tracks from Beung Kluy village, Ratanakiri is home to tribal people who lead ancient lifestyles. Until recently, they were so isolated by minefields and holdout bands of Khmer Rouge guerillas that when the first relief-agency jeeps picked their way into their hamlets, the villagers brought hay to feed the vehicles. Yet in the ramshackle commune of Robib (several villages comprising hovels fashioned from thatch and plaited bamboo), a five-classroom, brick-and-mortar school has roof-mounted solar panels that power a bank of computer terminals hooked up to the World Wide Web via a $10,000 satellite dish; shielded from wayward water buffalos inside a log-and-netting enclosure as if it were a revered spirit shrine.

Each sunrise finds several scooter-borne “Motomen,” employed by Krisher, plying the rutted dirt tracks that zigzag among 25 other similar schools in the province. The messengers carry Wi-Fi modems with an antenna for uploading and downloading emails for transmission to and from Robib’s satellite. The students love browsing websites about Khmer-language folksingers; older villagers use the Internet to sell their hand-woven silk products to discerning foreign collectors, complementing their family’s annual per capita income of less than $40. Designed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, this high-tech wireless Internet system was transported to this remote region by helicopter by a man who after six decades in the newspaper business still types with a single finger and finds the “Missed Calls” function of his cellular phone rather perplexing.

Krisher is a small, bald bespectacled man with the puckered features of a censorious mathematics professor and a no-nonsense, do-it-my-way temperament that lends him an air of imperious gravitas. His Khmer helpers — some 100 locals from drivers to accountants — obey his soft-spoken commands with anxious alacrity. “I’m very detail-oriented and have this constant sense of urgency,” he offers. “My staff blames me for poking my nose into everything.”

He is constantly hatching ever newer schemes of philanthropy during long morning showers. Today, over his breakfast of plain yoghurt and an undressed salad with no greens (he needs to watch his diet because of a mechanical heart valve), Krisher is peering at hand-drawn blueprints for one of his new pet projects called Bright Future Kids. “The idea is, even for children living in extreme poverty the sky is the limit if they’re ambitious,” he explains.

Teachers in the schools he has helped build in remote communities are nominating their brightest sixth grade students; come next January, the first 25 of them (some from distant Ratanakiri) will be bussed down to the capital, where their patron is building a dormitory for them. These gifted but destitute kids will be continuing their studies at Phnom Penh’s best high school; courtesy of Krisher, they’ll also receive extra English and computer lessons from foreign volunteer teachers.

Simultaneously, Krisher is launching Girls Be Ambitious, an initiative aimed at encouraging poor farmers to allow their daughters to attend school in return for $10 in monthly stipends. Across the sun-baked, monsoon-drenched Cambodian countryside, girls are routinely relegated to household chores and menial work, and their lack of education makes them vulnerable to unscrupulous human traffickers who promise them jobs in the big city and lure them into indentured service as maids or sex slaves.

“For the poor here, 90 percent of the opportunities are closed,” says Krisher. “But [some of] these kids are going to be movers, shakers, leaders, pushers.”

* * *

Bernard Krisher knows a thing or two about being a pusher. When informed by his assistant that the dormitory project is on hold pending approval by municipal authorities, Krisher brushes the issue aside. “I’m not going through this nonsense of red tape,” he snaps. “I’m gonna break the law [and build anyway] because there’s a higher law — helping people. I’ll call Sihanouk and Hun Sen if I must.” He means, respectively, Cambodia’s revered King Father, a close friend, and its strongman prime minister.

Children celebrate the opening of their new school in Beung Kluy village

His chutzpah has earned Krisher the moniker “Bernie Pusher.” Back in 1975, then Newsweek’s cocky Tokyo bureau chief, he plotted a Machiavellian course through the Byzantine bureaucracy of Japan’s secretive imperial institution to land the only exclusive interview ever granted by Emperor Hirohito. An inveterate dealmaker who hassles both influential friends and better-off strangers he meets in hotel lobbies and airport lounges, Krisher raises over $1 million yearly for his charities, American Assistance for Cambodia and Japan Relief for Cambodia. He himself donates $30,000 (from old stock investments) to cover his own traveling expenses. In Tokyo, where he’s made his home for four decades, he drives a banged-up old jalopy. “I’m stingy,” he notes.

He’s relentless too. When a fellow guest walks up to him in the InterContinental’s lounge with “Hi, you’re Bernie Krisher, right?” and introduces himself as a representative of a Bangkok-based budget airline, Krisher pounces and starts pumping him for new flight routes to Ratanakiri. After five minutes, the man, looking somewhat shell-shocked, backs away apologetically.

By the age of 14, Krisher had already honed the skills of accosting celebraties such as Frank Sinatra and Babe Ruth. A German-born Jewish refugee of Polish stock whose father had been a furrier in the old country who managed to bribe his family’s way out of Hitler’s Germany in 1939, when young Bernie was 8, Krisher earned pocket money by delivering newspapers in Queens. Expanding his business interests, he soon decided to launch his own mimeographed newspaper, The Pocket Mirror, selling 800 copies at 3 cents each. To raise his circulation, he went after celebrity interviews: “I have a picture of Babe Ruth shaking my hand,” he remembers. “I simply went to his house and knocked on the door. Sinatra? I went backstage after his show in the Paramount Theatre with all those girls screaming outside.”

In 1963, now Newsweek’s Columbia University-educated Japan correspondent, he sneaked past burly security guards into the antiques shop of a Tokyo hotel, where Indonesian president Sukarno was shopping for souvenirs, and caught him trying to browbeat a sales assistant into a massive discount. Sukarno took to the plucky reporter and introduced him to Cambodia’s King Norodom Sihanouk, who would soon become a close friend — but not before Krisher first got himself declared persona non grata by the mercurial “god king” after his unflattering coverage of the royal family. In 1993, when King Sihanouk (with whom he co-authored the book “Charisma and Leadership” three years previously) could finally return home to Phnom Penh from decides-long exile in Beijing, he asked Krisher to help him rebuild Cambodia, ravaged by the legacy of the Khmer Rouge Killing Fields, which left nearly 2 million citizens dead between 1975 and 1979, and a subsequent guerrilla war.

Krisher decided to launch an independent newspaper with the help of three Apple computers and an antique printing press to pioneer press freedom in Cambodia. “‘No!’ Sihanouk warned me,” recalls Krisher. “‘You’ll be killed. Try something else.’” Today, The Cambodia Daily (still printed in an A4-size, campus newspaper-style format) remains the country’s most reliable source of news, prized by Phnom Penh’s educated elite and foreigners alike. Its first copy is on display in a room named after Krisher in Phnom Penh’s spanking new American Embassy. Besides fearlessly reporting on pervasive government corruption, the paper runs an educational campaign about malaria, the number one killer in the country, and solicits donations for mosquito nets for villagers at risk of the disease.

* * *

A sallow, emaciated 22-year-old woman, kept alive by intravenous drips, lies in Bed 9 of the Sihanouk Hospital Centre of HOPE’s medical ward. Her care-worn grandmother clasps her limp hands in wordless support. The young woman, from a poor village 40 miles south of Phnom Penh, suffers from meningitis and malaria and may be HIV positive. This free hospital for the poor is her only hope and today she has a distinguished visitor. During his tour of the institution named after his ailing, 84-year-old father, King Norodom Sihamoni stops at the girl’s bedside and expresses his well wishes. Bernard Krisher murmurs his.

Krisher escorts King Norodom Sihamoni during the 10th anniversary celebration of a hospital for the poor the American philanthropist launched in 1996

As chairman of the board, Krisher is escorting the Cambodian sovereign around. He launched the hospital exactly 10 years ago in October 1996, enlisting the help of influential Japanese donors and HOPE Worldwide, an American faith-based medical charity. Since then, the 48 foreign-educated doctors have treated 750,000 patients by help of state-of-the-art surgical, medical, laboratory and radiological facilities.

Every morning at dawn, hundreds of villagers from all across Cambodia, many borne on impromptu stretchers by relatives, congregate in the yard for the daily lottery that affords a selected number access to treatment. Back home "medicine" means witchdoctors who smear doors with the blood of sacrificial animals to try and ward off disease in a country where an infected wisdom tooth can kill you.

“We give first-world treatment in a third-world country,” says Walter Kotkowski, a Californian who oversees procurement of medicine and equipment for the hospital. “Bernie is a class act. A one-man United Nations, I hear, they call him.”

Krisher does appear as if he were Minister of Education, Health and Information all in one. He has been stacking empty university libraries with thousands of donated books, and last year he persuaded the publisher of British author J.K. Rowling to let him translate “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” into Khmer and distribute 10,000 copies (at 50 cents each) to Cambodian kids so they can develop a taste for reading in this bookless land, where often there’s only a single textbook for every four students. “I’m a total amateur in this [philanthropy],” he offers.

So why does he do it?

“After a rewarding career in journalism,” he explains, “I felt I had gotten everything out of life: I escaped the Holocaust, I had a roof over my head and three meals a day. I felt morally obligated to give something back.” He then elucidates his modus operandi: “Aung San Suu Kyi [the Burmese Nobel Peace laureate] once told me [quoting an old aphorism]; ‘If you want to really help people, don’t give them fish; teach them how to fish.’ So I’ve been trying.”


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