From Scavenger to Black Belt: Sokhoeur’s Story

Five years ago, Little Hearts met Sokhoeur Choun, who would become their now-beloved taekwondo instructor and, in his own words, a second father to the children of Little Hearts. Sokhoeur, a former competitive athlete, came to us through our previous taekwondo teacher, who had been his own instructor growing up.

No stranger to poverty, Sokhoeur was the fifth of seven children and a trash scavenger as a boy, and the victim of social discrimination and violence. He often yearned for a better life and for simple treats like durian fruit, which his family could never afford. Sokhoeur dropped out of school in the sixth grade, but at the age of 15 he resumed his studies at Pour un Sourire d’Enfant (PSE), a French NGO that brings aid to Cambodian children affected by poverty, offering end-to-end care, schooling and social integration to improve their wellbeing and vocational opportunities. A few months into attending classes at PSE, Sokhoeur was invited by a friend to try taekwondo at a nearby club. He refused at first, assuming he wouldn’t be able to afford it, but upon learning that the classes were free, he decided to join the club, dedicating all his spare time between English and Khmer studies to taekwondo. From there, his lifelong passion for martial arts took off.

Sokhoeur’s path to taekwondo success was not without struggle, however. He had to walk four kilometres to attend classes and, although the classes were free, he had no money for a taekwondo uniform. He had to wait six months for a donated uniform – his only one, which he regularly dirtied during practice and eventually wore out completely. He also weathered protests from his parents, who thought he should be focusing on academic studies rather than sport. Seeing him suffer serious injuries after one bout, Sokhoeur’s parents demanded that he quit, but he begged them to let him continue, promising to stop once he attained a black belt – the highest level achievable in taekwondo, signifying mastery of the art. They agreed, but when he did indeed receive his black belt, he kept it from them, hoping to continue with his sparring sessions. It wasn’t until he achieved a second (higher) black belt that his parents found out, but by this point, they had stopped objecting, having finally understood and accepted his passion for taekwondo.

Through taekwondo, Sokhoeur has learned the importance of strength, perseverance and patience. He recounts a memory from his first month of taekwondo when he fell very ill and nearly stopped attending classes. His sabom (taekwondo teacher) told him that in order to master taekwondo as he wished, he must power through the illness and practice resilience. To this day, Sokhoeur lives by this teaching: all the obstacles that life puts in our way can be overcome through flexibility, strength and sheer perseverance.

This resilience has seen Sokhoeur triumph as a national taekwondo athlete, earning him many medals since he first began performing and fighting in matches in 2009. He has won bronze in the Cambodia Open; bronze, silver, and gold in the Hope Competition (a qualifier for the All the Best Competition, admitting the top ten competitors); and silver in the All the Best Competition. He has also received awards for solo taekwondo performances, where martial arts practitioners exhibit their skills through physical routines (forms) without actually engaging with an opponent.

After retiring from competition in 2016, Sokhoeur turned to teaching and now works as an independent instructor, having been promoted to ‘master’, or kru thom in Khmer, by his mentor. Now 30, he teaches taekwondo to students at several venues and institutions, including Little Hearts, Cute Care Phnom Penh School and Light of Mercy Home. Every Sunday morning, around twenty kids at Little Hearts practice their taekwondo with Sokhoeur for an hour and a half, improving both their physical fitness and learning to protect themselves, not to mention putting on impressive displays of high-kicks and martial choreographies. Most of our kids are now blue belts (the fourth belt of seven in taekwondo), while a few who joined the program more recently are still white belts.

Sokhoeur is always adopting new methods of instruction to keep the kids engaged, noting that maintaining focus and enthusiasm for repetitive discipline is not easy. His teaching practice requires effort, flexibility and understanding towards the students. His ultimate goal with the kids is to forge unity among them, his mantra being that “we are all living as one’” Sokhoeur is very fond of his Little Hearts pupils and often thinks of them as his own children.

Sokhoeur Choun is a role model of perseverance, hard work, commitment and hope at Little Hearts, having risen from the unlikeliest of circumstances to embrace taekwondo, his true passion and calling, and eventually becoming not only a national champion but an inspiration to all his students. Our kids are fortunate to have him as their instructor and look forward to continuing their training.

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