20 Ago Thearny Thoeun: Bomb shell recycling artisan
Thierni Thoeun has the loveliest smile, which, as with all Cambodians, belies the hardships she has gone through.
Born in a refugee camp just inside the Thai border, Thierni returned to Phnomh penh with her mother and 4 sisters upon the arrival of the UNTAC.
Thierni grew up a Christian since her mother attended church in the camp.
Upon their return to Phnom Penh, her mother bought a small piece of what is now dubbed “anarchy land”. The land was illegally sold to them by broke soldiers who bivouacked there, trying to make an extra buck. It was filthy with sewage. Many people after the war came away with little or nothing in the land grab that followed the return of millions of displaced people who had fled their homes in a hurry in the advance of the Khmer Rouge. To this day, there are many land disputes that the Land Department needs to solve and Thierni’s family is waiting to hear whether their investment is something they can build on for the future. Or if they have nothing.
In the refugee camp Thierni went to primary school but her family was so low on resources that, while they tried to resettle, she had to quit school at 9th grade.
Fortunately one of her sisters, who worked at World Vision, was able to get a mortgage for a house in a new development. This is where eventually the family settled. The vanilla coloured two story house at the end of a long row of maisonettes in the south of Phnom Penh, through some very heavy motorbike traffic, over the Bassac River, at the end of a scenic path past a Wat, some manicured cemetery lawns and a pond.
While at church she met Chantha. They now have two children, Rosa and Amos who attend the church school.
Ever resourceful, the family created an extra home and a workshop by connecting the outer development wall and the house roof with a tin roof where the young family live and work. In concrete planters poured by Chantha, lining the alley’s wall, Thierni then planted a Jackfruit tree and a Longan tree. “They will give some shade when they are tall” she says. “And I am going to plant some herbs too.”
Thierni is our heroine, not just because she survived growing up in a refugee camp smiling, but because even with having little, she chooses to blaze her own path. When I first visited the workshop, she was sewing recycled inner tube wallets for an order, but recently the sewing machines have been put to the side. “I want to focus on making jewellery,” she says. “Many women can sew, but making jewellery from bombshell metal is a man’s job, not many women do it. So this is what I prefer to do now.”