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Cambodian Richmonder educates children in their hometown

An adult crouches to take a photo with several children
Amanda Prak Sam
Amanda Prak Sam visits the school built by her nonprofit in her hometown on the outskirts of Battambang, Cambodia, in August 2022.

H.O.P.E., a Richmond-based nonprofit, also provides food support and builds clean water infrastructure.

Amanda Prak Sam views her life in America as a “safe haven.” After experiencing a traumatic childhood, the Richmond hair stylist expresses immense gratitude for her survival.

“America’s heaven, just heaven for us,” Sam said.

In 1975, Sam and her family were forced to flee their home in Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge, a brutal communist regime, took over the country. The regime murdered nearly 2 million Cambodians, roughly one-quarter of the population, targeting educated professionals like doctors, teachers, lawyers and police officers as well as ethnic and religious minorities. (Sam’s father was a teacher, which made the family a target.)

Her parents were forced into labor camps, leaving her with the responsibility of caring for her younger siblings with no food or means of support.

“I was forced to be a mom at 6 years old to feed my younger siblings. My parents are away, so I had to forage for food. You know, crickets. We eat anything besides the millipedes and centipedes,” Sam said.

At 8 years old, Sam was taken away from her siblings by Khmer Rouge soldiers and sent to a forced labor camp for two years. During that time, she saw her mother working but was not allowed to speak to her. The regime required people to refer to others as “comrade,” regardless of relationship, to help break familial bonds.

“Can you imagine? You're 8 or 9, you saw your mother for the first time in years, and then you want to run to her, to talk to her, but you couldn't,” Sam said. “You have to keep on working. Work was anywhere from 10 to 12 hours a day. You never have rest, even at night.”

After her younger brother and sister died from disease and starvation, Sam’s father was determined to help his wife and their surviving eight children escape. They fled Cambodia when Sam was 10 by trekking through the Thai jungle, trying to avoid landmines and the bodies of those who did not survive the journey. They lived in multiple refugee camps until 1981, when they were able to find a sponsor, get a visa to come to Richmond.

“We've been starving for four years. Even a refugee camp was such a dangerous place,” Sam said. “Coming to America was like a place of this freedom, this heaven.”

Sam was grateful for her new life, but never forgot her community in Cambodia.

In 1992, Sam made the journey back to her homeland. She recalled, “You can still hear the bombing here and there, the Khmer Rouge has not completely left. … I saw this poster everywhere and heard about human trafficking. So, people were so desperate they even know parents who’d sell their own kid to save other kids. So, that's when I told myself, 'I gotta do something.' You know, we live in America, we have this opportunity, we were given chances, and I need to do the same thing.”

Sam was able to do exactly that. In 2006, she founded 100 Pounds of Hope, a nonprofit organization named after the 100-pound bags of rice it delivered to impoverished Cambodians. The organization brought food and supplies to the underserved community in a rural village on the outskirts of Battambang, where Sam was born.

Then in 2019, she shifted the organization’s focus from food to education, renaming it H.O.P.E. for Helping Others Pursue Education.

“My father said, ‘It's good that you do the food, but food lasts, for what? A couple weeks, a month at most. But if you give education, [it will] last a lifetime. Nobody can take from them,’” Sam said.

Through her nonprofit, Amanda was able to build a school in her hometown and construct the first indoor bathrooms and clean drinking water pumps in the village. Recently, they’ve completed building a second school on the spot where Sam’s father taught before the war. Sam’s organization has helped uplift her community and provided support for youth living in poverty who had no hope of an advanced education.

Today, the two schools serve 430 students, providing uniforms, shoes, supplies and — when needed — food.

“Forty percent of them, they don't have the parent living with them. They [parents] have to leave the country to find work. They [children] are high risk of human trafficking, they're vulnerable. So, we provide as much as we can, and we still need a lot of help,” Sam said. “Prior to building that school, most of the kids that when they're the highest, they have gone to sixth grade and they drop out because they don't see the value of education. Now, we have kids actually even go to college.”

While Sam has overcome tremendous hardship, she has been able to use the pain of her past as motivation to support others. She works full time as a hair stylist and drives ride sharing cars at night to make extra money to maintain the schools that H.O.P.E. built in Cambodia. She’s an inspiration to many, including her two sons Mattura and Alex.

“Despite some hard times and, of course, dealing with both her life in Cambodia, and how that dramatically changed and then struggles coming to America, she has always been like a beacon of hope," Mattura Sam said. "And, for my brother and I, has always been a figure of kindness and thoughtfulness. And for me especially, every time I think in a situation where I might be a little upset or not give people the credit they’re due, I just think, 'What would my mom do?'"

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