Well-educated Phaly Nuon was among the only Cambodian refugees at Nong Samet, a border camp near Thailand, who could talk with the aid workers. They gave her a wooden hut for shelter. Thousands of widows with small children (who had survived unspeakable atrocities of war) lived in tents in the camp, and Nuon saw women who weren’t moving—“not talking, not feeding or caring for their own children,” she told Andrew Solomon, the author of the 2001 book “The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression.” “I saw that though they had survived the war, they were now going to die from their depression."
Nuon decided to try to help. As her number of clients grew, aid groups helped her create the Khmer People’s Depression Relief Center, which expanded to 35 beds. She later founded The Future Light Orphanage near Phnom Penh, Cambodia, which now cares for nearly 300 orphans and provides mental health care for families.
Nuon and her staff eventually received training in mental health work from Harvard University and other organizations from around the world, but in the camp, she developed her own way of treating women who had been traumatized: Once a woman began to share her story, Nuon drew her through daily exercises to help her “forget” horrific memories. She distracted them with pleasures like weaving or music and taught work skills such as cleaning houses or raising pigs—a source of sustenance and pride.
And when she felt the time was right, Nuon took them to a steamy lean-to where they could wash and give each other manicures and pedicures. Solomon describes “little bottles of colored enamel, the steam room, the sticks for pushing back cuticles, the emery boards, the towels.”
Nuon explained to Solomon that the care “makes them feel beautiful, and they want so much to feel beautiful. It also puts them in contact with the bodies of other people….While they are together washing and putting on nail polish, they begin to talk together, and bit by bit they learn to trust one another, and by the end of it all, they have learned how to make friends, so that they will never have to be so lonely and so alone again. Their stories, which they have told to no one but me—they begin to tell those stories to one another."
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