Fumio Goto never imagined that he would end up helping to build schools in Cambodia when he first accepted refugees from the country in 1981.
Goto, a 71-year-old priest at Catholic Kichijoji Church in the city of Musashino, western Tokyo, has accepted 16 refugees — 10 boys, four girls and an elderly couple — at Cambodian House, which is set up within his church.
In 1994, Goto visited Cambodia for the first time, accompanying one of the refugees — Meas Bun Ra — on his search for his parents.
Over the subsequent six months, Meas visited temples around the country for clues to his parents’ fate.
Meas, 35, never learned his parents’ whereabouts. But, according to Goto, he brought back to Japan a request from a Buddhist monk he met in a village in Kandal Province, which surrounds Phnom Penh.
“The monk asked us to help build a school in the village,” Goto said. “He said he cannot preach hope to the villagers when there is nothing they can look forward to.”
Goto, who had never received such a request, was worried that he might be falling prey to a scam. So he decided to help the monk but only with his personal income and savings at first.
With Meas serving as coordinator between Goto and the local community, an elementary school was built in August 1995. Word of the project spread to other provinces and one community after another has sought Goto’s help.
Through the first project, Goto learned it costs about 4 million yen to build a school with six classrooms, a teachers’ room and a lavatory. Since then, he has built six more schools in four provinces across Cambodia.
The buildings are sturdy and have a modern look. Unlike the old school buildings, which were often made of cow dung or mud, the ones built with Goto’s help feature concrete posts, yellow walls and brown tile roofs. The schools have all been donated to the provincial governments.
“What I do is provide them with a school building,” he said. “It is then up to the local governments to come up with a school curriculum and hire teachers.”
Contributions worth 500,000 yen from The Japan Times Readers’ Fund, part of 3,724,958 yen raised through last year’s campaign, helped finance construction of the sixth school in a remote village in Banteay Meanchey Province in northwest Cambodia. The readers’ contributions matched the cost of building one classroom, which is equipped with a blackboard, desks and chairs, Goto said.
The agricultural village is located some 30 km from the Thai border — beyond the reach of developmental assistance by any governmental or nongovernmental organization, Goto said.
The village’s old school building fell into disrepair after it was abandoned during the totalitarian regime of the Khmer Rouge guerrillas, led by Pol Pot, when education was halted and people were forced to lead an agrarian life.
The villagers readily helped with the new school’s construction, which started in January and finished last summer, Goto said.
“On the very night in January when the locals learned a new school would be built, they started bringing mud to the site to make the foundation firm, with children working until 10:30 p.m. and adults until 12:30 a.m.,” Goto said. “It moved me that the villagers wanted the school so much.”
Meas, who oversaw the project from beginning to end, said the villagers are excited to have a school of their own.
“Children are very happy because they don’t have to worry about getting drenched (in the old building) when it rains any more,” he said.
Goto said that what he has done for the Cambodian people has nothing to do with the propagation of the Christian faith.
“Helping people receive education comes long before missionary work,” he said. “Besides, I don’t want to take advantage of people’s misfortune.”
Then what is driving Goto to give most of his personal savings and income, including the money he raises through speaking engagements, to the Cambodian people?
“People there, especially those in the villages, are so pure,” he said. “Over the years, I have come to really love the good nature of the Cambodian people.”