Photo/IllutrationMiyu Ozawa, center, plays with children in the yard of a primary school in Cambodia. The library she donated is housed in the school building in the background. (Provided by Miyu Ozawa)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

OSAKA--Instead of spending the gift money she received each New Year's and on entering school, Miyu Ozawa saved it for her future.

Thanks to her savings, primary schoolchildren in Cambodia are on a path to a brighter future themselves.

They are the beneficiaries of a new library funded by Ozawa, 16, a second-year student at Tezukayama Gakuin Senior High School in Osaka.

“I had saved the money, which my mother used to tell me not to spend on games or for having fun,” she said. “That turned out to be useful in the end.”

During her spring vacation following her graduation from junior high school, Ozawa worked as a volunteer on a 10-day tour in Cambodia, where she helped with classes at a primary school.

Ozawa turned to a girl while skipping rope with children and asked her in English, with gestures, what she felt happiest doing. The girl looked Ozawa squarely in the eye and said, “Studying.”

After returning to Japan, Ozawa began thinking about building a library in Cambodia because it appeared that while the country had schools, it did not have enough teachers or teaching materials.

“Books will give you a first step for studying on your own,” Ozawa said. “I hope some will aspire to be teachers in due course after encountering books."

In Cambodia, schools were destroyed and textbooks were burned during the 1975-1979 reign of Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot. It is believed that some 1.7 million people died from torture, massacres, hunger and other causes.

The country is still short of teachers to this day. Ensuring the quality of the instructors is another lingering problem.

Ozawa spoke, over an Internet phone, with a local interpreter introduced by an acquaintance of her mother, Hidemi. She chose a primary school in the village of Cham as a candidate site.

The village is in Prey Veng province, a rural area close to the border with Vietnam. The school has 30-odd pupils and only one teacher.

“The classes here are centered on arithmetic because life would be difficult without a minimum knowledge of math,” Ozawa recalled the male teacher as saying. “I had never even thought of a library before. I would really like to have one here."

Thirty copies each of a textbook of English and a schoolbook for the local Khmer script were furnished in a room in the school building, where the walls were repainted. Spanking new desks and chairs were also introduced.

The total cost of $6,000 (670,000 yen) was funded by Ozawa's savings.

Ozawa visited the primary school for the first time this past summer, where she found herself in the company of smiling children. The name “Miyu’s Educational Library” was later engraved on an outer wall.

“Ozawa has a wonderful ability for getting the gist of what has to be done,” said Akiko Suzuki of the Shanti Volunteer Association, a group that has been building schools and libraries in Cambodia and elsewhere. “She also has a great power for action.

“I want to encourage her to keep doing what little we can do, believing that the power of books will allow people to live better lives.”

Ozawa now embraces a new dream: making, and delivering, a picture book that features a little girl and a small seedling, which grows into a full flower garden.

“That’s because I think a picture book will nurture the imagination,” she said.