| May 20, 2016
This is the first story in a series collected by Healthy Women, Healthy World to share the stories of the women who inspire their initiative. Meet Sophea, one of the women of Medical Teams International who is working hard in Cambodia to ensure better healthcare for women around the world.
Upon meeting Sophea, I was immediately drawn to her and her story. It is one of many stories of survival from the Khmer Rouge regimen but Sophea’s story is one of hardship, survival, perseverance and hope. –Kristi
Sophea was born in 1965. Sophea was one of nine siblings—four died before their fifth birthday. Sophea is from a village in Battambang province, Cambodia. She grew up during the bloody Pol Pot regime—a time of brutal violence, state-led genocide, and heart-wrenching loss.
When she was just 10, she and her brothers were forced to leave home. Here, they survived on watery porridge, slept in hammocks and spent hours doing hard labor in the nearby fields. Sophea constantly worried about her family and couldn’t sleep. Stationed just a few miles from home – but forbidden to visit her family – sometimes she would sneak out at night to see them. This is how she learned what was happening to the rest of her family: her father had been murdered by Pol Pot’s soldiers. Her uncles, afraid they were next, fled. Her grandmother starved to death. Not even a teenager, Sophea witnessed so much loss.
When Vietnam began attaching Khmer Rouge soldiers, bombings threatened everyone. Her family fled to a nearby village. For two months, they survived by eating the grains of rice left in the rice fields after harvest. They were so desperate for food. Rice became the currency of trade.
Soon, her family fled to refugee camps on the border in search of safety. They arrived at the camps safely, but were not there long before they were robbed. Without money for rice, they would soon starve. They returned to their village, but soon discovered their house had been taken by another family. Living with relatives, things finally began to get better. Sophea returned to school and her brothers opened a tailoring business.
But, then—finally recovering after so much loss and heartache—her brothers were drafted to fight. Afraid to lose even more, her family returned to the refugee camps—fleeing twice to avoid attacks by Pol Pot’s soldiers.
Despite food rations and occasional bombings, life finally began improving for Sophea—now in her twenties. Working hard, Sophea passed the midwifery exam and began work as a midwife. She married and began a family, and both she and her husband worked hard helping their fellow Cambodians heal after the many scars left by war.
Sophea has spent over three decades working with nonprofits—providing care to women affected by AIDS, working with local communities, improving quality of care at clinics and helping more women have access to reproductive healthcare. It was difficult work: She had to live away from her family to reach the communities that needed the most care. Landmines left from the war made this job very dangerous. To earn her Public Health degree, she traveled over four hours every weekend to attend classes. Her dedication to the health of her people and her drive to learn kept her passionate to keep working hard.
Sophea joined Medical Teams International in January 2013. She lives in Phnom Penh with her husband and three children. She brings her passion and experience to two core programs: Healthy Children & Safe Motherhood & Medical Services & Training. After years of service in the villages, Sophea has earned the respect of those working alongside her in the field—and is making a big difference in our work in Cambodia. We are so blessed to have her on the team!