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Cambodian Orphans Go Online

January 14, 1999

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) _ Loneliness has filled Heng Huot’s childhood, scarred by losing a father to civil war and a mother to disease.

The future, however, is starting to look brighter to the 13-year-old, who is making friends half a world away now that his orphanage has gone online.

With the inquisitiveness of kids everywhere, he is surfing the Internet and learning the same skills as children in developed countries.

``I learn about the Internet every night. I like it because I can speak to the world,″ Huot said Thursday at the opening of the Future Light Orphanage’s Computer Learning Center. ``I have a friend in America named Rob. I talk to him by computer.″

The Future Light Orphanage began in a refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodian border as orphans fled the brutalities of Pol Pot’s infamous Khmer Rouge regime. It moved to the Cambodian capital after a 1991 peace agreement took the first major step toward ending the civil war.

The children’s plight attracted the attention of Bernard Krisher, an American philanthropist who wanted to send 250 young Cambodians into the digital age and whose fund raising helped secure 30 personal computers.

``I like to do sort of dramatic things that others will hopefully copy in the future,″ Krisher said of the new computer center. ``We hope to create one Bill Gates and one prime minister out of this.″

With tiny hands that can just wrap themselves around a mouse, the youngest of the children are eagerly learning to draw on the computers.

The older children are using e-mail to share experiences with other children in Japan, Europe and the United States.

At the computer center’s official opening Thursday, the Future Light Orphanage launched a home page designed to introduce the orphans to the world through their drawings, photos and e-mail messages.

Nicholas Negroponte, dean of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s media center and a contributor to the center, told the children that the vast information available on the Internet has given developing nations a golden opportunity to catch up with the West.

``In about two years, there will be 1 billion users on the Internet. That number may not surprise people, but what is surprising is that a large number will come from the developing world,″ he said. ``The digital world is your world. It is a global world. There are no borders.″

Huot, who aspires to become a doctor, is eager to study computers. ``It is interesting to me,″ he said. Then, after a shy pause, Huot asked: ``Can I have your e-mail address?″

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EDITOR’S NOTE _ The Future Light Orphanage’s Web site address is www.camnet.com.kh/future.light.

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