Ruth Keidel Clemens is in Cambodia right now as part of a learning tour. But who is she? She is the current International Program Director for MCC US – our supervisors’ supervisor – but her connection to Cambodia goes deeper than that.
Ruth and her husband Jonathan came to Cambodia (then Kampuchea) in 1988. They were the third MCC Representatives to Kampuchea. At that time, the country was still under embargo by the United States and China. They were forced to live in a hotel along with the few other Western expatriates in country (when they arrived in 1988, they were only 14 Americans and 80 Western expats in total). They were suspected of being Western spies and their movements were monitored closely. They were not allowed to have Cambodian friends outside of their contacts in the government and had to practice their faith in private as Christianity was illegal.
The Clemens raised their four children in Cambodia under these conditions. One of their children was a Cambodian orphan who they adopted. They managed to build relationships with Cambodians despite the barriers – even their government handlers – and implemented projects ranging from forestry to community health to irrigation.
MCC was one of only three American NGOs active inside Cambodia during the embargo. Due to this status as an isolated American witness, the Clemens hosted people like Edmund Muskie, Peter Jennings during filming of From the Killing Fields, Sydney Schanberg, and Dith Pran.
The restrictions began to relax during the Clemen’s term. They were allowed to move out of the hotel and into the MCC Office/Guesthouse. They also brought in the first long term MCC service worker, Dr. Hélène Hege. She served in Prey Veng province and was the first Western expatriate given permission to live outside of the capital after the Khmer Rouge. Finally – on Easter Sunday in 1990 – Christianity was legalized and the Clemens were among the attendants at that first service.
In the early 1990s, the Paris Peace Agreement resulted in the end of the embargo and the formation of a new government. Kampuchea became Cambodia and there was an influx of Western development NGOs. MCC, as one of the few NGOs with experience working in Cambodia, played a outsized role in establishing interagency coordination and cooperation. The Cooperation Committee for Cambodia was formed during this time with heavy involvement by MCC and the American Friends Service Committee.
In 1991, Mennonite Central Committee was finally able to begin working in villages on a participatory level in Cambodia. As her term came to an end, Ruth worked to restructure the Cambodia program and recruited many new service workers to serve on the community level. These individuals started some amazing initiatives throughout the 1990s. I’ll highlight some of them in future alumni profiles.