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Prof Helps Cambodians Clean Up

Posted on October 12th, 2007

Doug Graber-Neufeld, EMU prof of biology
Doug Graber-Neufeld, associate professor of biology at EMU

When he chose Cambodia for a mission, Doug Neufeld wanted to help clean up the Asian country.

“Cambodia has lots of environmental issues,” said Neufeld.

Neufeld, his wife, Cristina, and their sons, Alex, 5, and Evan, 3, spent the past two years in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, returning to the U.S. in July. What Neufeld and his spouse saw during their stay in Southeast Asia was a nation nursing old wounds while harboring new hope.

Neufeld, an associate professor of biology at EMU and chairman of EMU’s biology and chemistry departments, used a long-awaited sabbatical and a leave of absence to serve overseas with his wife.

Talks with officials from Mennonite Central Committee, the relief and development arm of Mennonite Church-USA, alerted the Neufelds to the need in Cambodia for addressing problems with pollution, poisons and peace.

Graber Neufeld family in Cambodia
Neufeld’s wife, Cristina, and their sons, Alex, 5, and Evan, 3, spent the past two years in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, returning to the U.S. in July.

Wastewater levels in Cambodia loom dangerously high, said Neufeld, and the use of loosely regulated pesticides from neighboring Thailand and Vietnam increases contamination. The latter impurities thrive on impoverished Cambodia’s dependence on foreign trade, particularly in its export of rice, the country’s key crop.

Moreover, the tapping of newly unearthed oil reserves, Neufeld said, has caused deforestation.

“There is a lot of economic pressure on Cambodia to use its natural resources,” said Neufeld, who worked with staff from two universities in Phnom Penh to gauge toxin levels in sprayed fruits and vegetables. “How to use its oil reserves will be the next big issue there.”

Old Demons

Cambodia, said Neufeld, grapples with an even more venomous past.

Suffering inflicted on civilians by the sadistic Khmer Rouge regime of the 1970s left deep scars. That horrific era’s physical legacy shows in today’s maimed survivors missing arms or legs, victims of Cambodia’s civil war, or its post-war traps that include forgotten yet functional land mines.

More subtle signs of the nation’s horrors remain in its people’s reserved manner, said Neufeld, especially in their trained aversion to cooperation. Such reluctance, he said, is indicative of Cambodians weaned on fear during the Khmer Rouge era.

This lack of cooperation can be seen in the two academies that use Neufeld’s scientific skill. The Royal University of Phnom Penh and nearby Royal University of Agriculture may both use his expertise but share little else.

“There’s a lack of trust between individuals from the Pol Pot days, which means there’s less cooperation than there should be between the two universities,” said Neufeld. “Khmer Rouge destroyed all of society. They killed intellectuals and took children from their parents.”

The constitutional monarchy that has ruled Cambodia since the mid-1990s, says Neufeld, amounts to barely more than a “nominal democracy,” and little of the state’s income from trade aids the poor.

“Cambodia’s government is not communist,” said Neufeld, “but it’s not fully functional.”

Cristina Neufeld, a part-time accountant in Harrisonburg who worked with pro-peace youth groups while in Cambodia, concedes that today’s Cambodians “still have a lot of difficulties dealing with their sad history,” but adds that she feels hopeful for their future. “They have a lot of energy to move forward.”

Cristina Neufeld, who spent most of her youth in Bolivia as a daughter of missionaries, thinks that taking her children to the Far East also enriched both boys’ lives.

“Our kids were able to learn a lot and experience a lot of things they wouldn’t have been able to experience if we had stayed here,” she said. “I think being over there gave us a better sense of just how connected the world is, how we can all affect each other all over the world.”

Teaching Tools

Marie S. Morris, vice president and undergraduate dean at EMU, feels that Neufeld’s ministry will help his teaching.

“Doug not only sets the mission and goal of our school, but the real-world experience he can bring into a classroom will only enhance his teaching,” Morris said.

Graber Neufeld family in Cambodia
Neufeld plans to return to Cambodia for a pair of three-week trips within a year with students from EMU and Buffalo State, which will partner on the project.

Morris adds that Neufeld’s work in Asia “brings theory and practice into service. I think Doug is a good role model of how that happens.”

Neufeld’s mission left him upbeat enough to want to go back.

Neufeld plans to return to Cambodia for a pair of three-week trips within a year with students from EMU and Buffalo State, which will partner on the project.

Despite the barriers built by Cambodia’s past, Neufeld feels that the country’s best days lie ahead.

“Cambodians are survivors,” he said.

Contact Tom Mitchell at 540-574-6275 or mitchell@dnronline.com.

Story by Tom Mitchell, Daily News Record
Category: Alumni, Biology, Chemistry, Student life
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