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Muoy You, who escaped Cambodia's killing fields, now teaches self-respect and integrity

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In Cambodia today, few students have that chance; most have access only to basic education. So upon returning home to Phnom Penh in 2003, Muoy set up the Seametrey Children's Village, a private initiative. She mortgaged a property she owned abroad, bought a small plot of land, and converted a run-down hut on it into a classroom.

"A school is just a building," she notes. "It's the resources that matter."

Courteous and fluent in English, Muoy modestly calls herself "an obscure woman with dreams bigger than herself." She started with a handful of young children – those of neighbors and acquaintances.

She ditched the rote learning that is common at crowded government schools and instead set about helping children discover the joys of learning by themselves in a free-spirited environment. "You shouldn't just stick children behind desks," Muoy explains. "You need to help them retain their childlike curiosity and spontaneity."

Word of her school spread. As more and more students came, Muoy rented the house next door to expand.

Two years ago, after the death of her architect-painter husband, she turned their airy, four-story home on the site into a guesthouse.

"I've turned hotelier for the cause," Muoy says with a chuckle. The income "helps us sustain the school without the need for handouts," she says.

Parents pay according to their means. The poorest pay nothing; some pay small sums they can afford. Expatriates and better-off locals pay the full monthly fee of $290.

"A school like this would have been beyond our dreams," says Ang Kim, a tuk-tuk driver whose two young daughters study in Seametrey. He can't pay, but he volunteers as a security guard on Sundays.

Currently, the school has 80 students, from toddlers to teens. They learn in small groups from nursery through primary school. Whether from dirt-poor villages, urban slums, or well-heeled Phnom Penh homes, they're treated alike – and are expected to treat one another alike, too.

A poor farmer's son is best friends with a rich rice merchant's son – a rare friendship in a country with a rigid social divide between rich and poor.

"We have to break down social barriers and emphasize our common humanity," Muoy insists.

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