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Father’s mission: helping schoolkids in Cambodia

by Atsushi Kodera

Staff Writer

Between 1981 and 1994, Father Fumio Goto fostered 14 Cambodian child refugees, and since 1995 has built 17 schools in the country. Now, at 84, his passion to support Cambodia’s disadvantaged children shows no sign of waning.

Next March, his seven-staff nonprofit organization, AMATAK (“eternity” in Khmer), based at Kichijoji Catholic Church in Musashino, Tokyo, will celebrate the completion of its 18th elementary school in impoverished Cambodian rural villages.

Located in Pailin province in western Cambodia near the Thai border, the Hun Sen O’Chra Primary School accommodates about 150 students in three classrooms and is equipped with a teachers’ room and a bathroom — the typical configuration of schools built by AMATAK.

Donations of ¥118,061 from last year’s Readers’ Fund went to the roughly ¥5 million project.

In August, AMATAK also donated brand-new copies of a math textbook to seven of the elementary schools it built. The textbook was developed, translated into Khmer and printed with the cooperation of Gaudia Inc., a cram school operator in Yokohama, and Tokyo consulting firm Asian Frontier Co.

Goto, whose conversion to Catholicism he traces to the traumatic experience of losing his mother in a wartime U.S. air raid, has long collaborated in this work with Meas Bunra, who as a teen became one of Goto’s foster children in 1982.

As recounted in Goto’s humorous yet moving memoir, “Yoshi, Gakko o Tsukuro” (“OK, We’re Going to Build a School”), Meas fled his country after being separated from his family and surviving brutal torture under the notorious Khmer Rouge regime, which was responsible for over 2 million deaths, according to some estimates.

In 1995, Meas risked his life in a vain search for his family in Cambodia. On his return after half a year, he brought with him instead a proposition to build a school in a poverty-stricken rural village, setting things in motion for Goto. He now plays a key role as a local agent for AMATAK.

Although Cambodia has a compulsory education system, “it’s only working in city areas mostly,” Goto said. Many in the countryside have no way of giving their children a proper education.

The schools AMATAK has donated are often barely big enough, but locals make the most of them, according to Meas, who is based in Phnom Penh.

“First- to third-graders use it in the morning, and fourth- to sixth-graders use it in the afternoon, for example,” Meas said. “Sometimes the number of students exceeds the capacity, which forces the teachers to vacate their room so students can use it.”

For work like AMATAK’s, donations are crucial. But they declined sharply after the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011 diverted funds to northern Japan.

“When we started out, (building a school) cost something like ¥2 million,” says AMATAK director Midori Sawada. “Now it’s more like ¥5 million.”

Fortunately, this year, AMATAK has received “nintei” certified NPO status from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, providing tax breaks to donors. In fact, donations have already increased noticeably since the group was accredited, Sawada said.

In addition to building schools, the group hopes to use the donations to support the needy in Cambodia, including farmers hit by floods, and elderly people who do not have younger family members to support them, having lost children in the Khmer Rouge genocide, according to Meas.

If you want to make donations directly to AMATAK, send from a Japan Post Bank account to: Japan Post Bank, payee account number 00140-1-722656, payee name “AMATAK Kanbojia to Tomoni Ikiru Kai.” You can also directly deposit cash at a Japan Post Bank using the above information. For details on sending from other banks or from overseas, ask the bank that you use as the origin of transfer.