PEPY Voices: Saly Hem: From Gang Leader to Community Role Model
by Danny Silk
Photo Credit: Vannak Lach
Several years before he joined the PEPY team, Saly Hem was considered a local leader within the Damrey Slab (“Dead Elephant”) Village. However, Saly had not attained such a reputation through political office, successful business ventures or a wealthy bloodline. Rather, Saly took a far more infamous path: he was a gang leader.
After dropping out of school in ninth grade and finding himself unable to secure a job, Saly resorted to his innate street smarts and his powers of persuasion to amass a band of followers. Driven by a constant desire for superiority, this gang actively worked to expand its territory and even resorted to violence if another group threatened its relative standing. Indeed, Saly was feared throughout the several villages in the province.
Saly’s life took a drastic turn one night when his father, distressed by his son’s actions, burst into tears and begged Saly to reconsider how he could serve as a benefit to society. Moved by his father’s words, Saly thought about his own life, and for the first time he regretted his departure from schooling. With help from friends and family, Saly worked tirelessly to gain the reading and critical thinking skills that he felt were impossible to grasp as a boy. His efforts paid off, and in 2001 he was contracted as a 3rd and 4th grade teacher at a primary school in Chanleas Dai.
In 2008, Saly applied to work for PEPY and became part of our Child-to-Child team, working with Program Manager Awatd Khuth. It was Awatd who helped Saly realize that his previous life as a gang member could serve as a powerful tool to educate younger children about the realities of gangs and destructive behavior. Before long, Saly was not only teaching the young generation about math and reading, but he was also helping them remain focused on the importance of education. Saly says. “Working at PEPY I have an opportunity to work and contribute to the development of my community.”
Saly continues to have new goals for himself: through his work with PEPY he is keen to develop a core of youth leaders who promote tolerance and non-violent resolution. He would also like to develop his skills in English language to work as a translator or interpreter. He dreams that his students will all reach a high level of education, and especially wishes this for his most beloved student: his young son . The two read to each other every day, and Saly is confident that his son will have the right guidance to succeed. We are excited to be working with Saly as he strives to realize these goals for himself and his community.