• Adjunct Professor of the Humanities in the Program in Writing Alan Lightman sits in the mosque built by his and his wife's Harpswell Foundation with villagers, Muslim Chams (of the San Cham sect).

    Photo / Elyse Lightman

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  • Alan Lightman, at right, shares a meal with Cambodian students. The Harpswell Foundation, which he and his wife founded, built a dormitory for the women so they could attend college in Phnom Penh.

    Photo / Elyse Lightman

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  • This mosque, built by Alan and Elyse Lightman's Harpswell Foundation, was completed in December 2007 and will be inaugurated this week in Tramung Chrum, Cambodia.

    Photo / Elyse Lightman

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A dream come true: Lightman lights up future for Cambodians

The inauguration this week of a new mosque in the Cambodian village of Tramung Chrum will represent a dream come true for residents of the Muslim enclave in the overwhelmingly Buddhist country.

That dream was brought to life by Alan Lightman, MIT physicist and writer who a decade or so ago, with his wife, Jeanne, made a pact to turn their energies toward humanitarian pursuits. Without a firm direction or funding, they formed the nonprofit Harpswell Foundation in 1999.

Within a few years, Lightman, Jeanne and their daughter, Elyse, would attend the opening of a school built in an impoverished village 50 miles from Phnom Penh, build and manage a women's dorm and leadership center in Phnom Penh and, finally, build the new mosque in Tramung Chrum.

Lightman has been entranced by science and the arts from an early age. Appointed professor of science and writing and senior lecturer in physics at MIT in 1989, he went on to head the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies from 1991 to 1997 and helped found the Catalyst Collaborative, a collaboration between MIT and the Underground Railway Theatre of Boston in 2004. His novel, "Einstein's Dreams," published in 1993, was an international bestseller and has been translated into 30 languages.

Professor Lightman first heard of Tramung Chrum, a tiny Muslim village in Cambodia, in 2003 from the Rev. Fred Lipp. Lipp, who had been working to keep young girls in school in Cambodia with his own foundation, told Alan of a village whose only school had a roof of palm fronds. Lightman's imagination was kindled and in December of that year he and daughter Elyse accompanied Lipp to Cambodia.

What they found was a village of about 500 people--mostly Muslim Chams, one of Cambodia's ethnic minorities. With neither running water nor electricity, the local economy was based on subsistence farming and menial labor.

"We were overwhelmed with emotion," Lightman says softly, his eyes lighting at the memory. "These people had gone through tremendous suffering since the mid-1970s and the genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge, and in spite of that they had hope and resilience. "The best expression of that hope for the future," he says, "was when we arrived, mothers holding babies came up and asked for our help to build a school.

They had nothing, lived in abject poverty, but wanted a school, a future. We were so moved."

Funded by donations from family and friends, the school was finished in the summer of 2005. Where a roof of palm fronds had been now stands a concrete-and-steel-girder school.

The impetus for his next project came from Veasna Chea, a native of Tramung Chrum who had made it through law school in Phnom Penh by living with three female classmates in the space on the mud floor beneath the school for four years. Male students could live in the Buddhist temples, but in the gritty capital, there were few, if any, safe places for women to stay, so few women attended college.

Once again, he took on the challenge, found contractors and built the dormitory and leadership center.

But that was only the beginning. Lightman reckons, "One-third of my waking hours I spend on Cambodia daily." From sleeping security guards to the students' need for medical procedures, funds for upkeep, teachers, food and all life's issues, Lightman is the go-to guy. His daily electronic communications with the dorm represent the sole exception to Lightman's personal ban on using e-mail.

He is presently trying to raise a $500,000 endowment to keep the dorm and all it offers up and running in the future.

As he busied himself managing the dorm and leadership center, the villagers of Tramung Chrum, thrilled with their school, asked him to build a mosque. To Lightman, health care seemed a more compelling need, but he understood that it had to be what the entire village wanted. So he asked the men and women of the village to choose five representatives each, and he met with the two groups separately. The men wanted a mosque, the women wanted health care.

A meeting was convened to give the 10 representatives the opportunity to address the whole village and then vote on which project to take forward. After a civil discussion, all the men and three women voted for the mosque. The reason? The mosque represented their spiritual health, which they considered more important than their physical health. Lightman recognized that the cultural value and tradition was different than his own and that the social fabric of the community depended on the mosque.

"They are so proud," he says, "so deeply happy with this mosque."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 7, 2008 (download PDF).

Topics: Education, teaching, academics, Faculty, In the world, Global, Volunteering, outreach, public service


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