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From Detroit to Cambodia, dignity and empowerment are focus of Law Professor Peter Hammer's work

October 22, 2012

Justice and human rights are far more than words for Wayne State University Law Professor Peter Hammer. The words represent the concepts that motivate his life.

For most of the year, Hammer teaches law students in his role as educator and director of the Law School’s Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights.
And just about every summer, he travels to Cambodia, where he is chairman of the nonprofit, non-governmental organization (NGO) Life and Hope Association (LHA) in Siem Reap. He’s been doing grassroots work for justice and human rights in Cambodia since 1993. He also is a founding member and past president of Legal Aid of Cambodia, a nonprofit, NGO offering free legal services to Cambodia’s poor.
“The approach and tactics you take are different, but a lot of what we do at the Keith Center has much in common with the work in Cambodia,” Hammer said. “The mission in both places is to empower people and respect the dignity of each citizen.”
LHA was established in 2005 by the Buddhist monks of Wat Damnak Temple as one project, Food for Education, and has since grown into six. Each program educates and cares for disadvantaged women and children in the southeast Asian nation that has captured Hammer’s heart.
“Each program is interesting and special in its own way,” Hammer said. “If you do development work as close to the grassroots as possible, you do good work. The organization is designed to focus on at-risk young women and vulnerable children and to provide them pathways to change their lives.”
At Wayne Law, Hammer teaches courses on Community Development as well as Race, the Law and Social Change in Southeast Michigan, and health policy courses. He holds a Ph.D. in economics and a J.D. earned magna cum laude. He clerked for U.S. Court of Appeals Ninth Circuit Judge Alfred Goodwin and then worked as a litigation associate in the practice areas of antitrust and health care for a Los Angeles firm from 1993-95. During those years, he was awarded a Pro Bono Service Award by the International Human Rights Law Group for his work with the Cambodian Defender’s Project.
He then started teaching at the University of Michigan Law School, his alma mater, and in 2003, came to Wayne Law, where he helped redesign the Law School’s growing health law curriculum. And all the while, he was working and researching in Cambodia. In 2007, he was Visiting Professor at the Center for Khmer Studies, teaching in the Capacity Building in Cambodian Higher Education Program.
Hammer visited Cambodia this summer.
“I try to get back every year if I can to maintain ties,” he said. “We have to make sure the organization remains strong. I travel to each one of the programs and spend a lot of time with coordinators and staff, evaluate how things are going and what needs to be done to ensure that the organization will continue to grow and develop. It’s very important to have it run by the monks themselves and to help them assume leadership roles.”
This year, the organization’s executive director, Ven. Somnieng Hoeurn, deputy head monk at Wat Damnak Temple, is working on a master’s degree in public policy and management at Harvard University. Ven. Somnienghas traveled a long road that began in a poor Cambodian family with an abusive stepfather. His mother sent him to live with another family to protect him, and hoped he would be able to gain an education.
But “he was not permitted to graduate from primary school because his family didn’t have the money to bribe the teacher,” Hammer said. “He went into the monkhood to continue his education — and now he’s at Harvard!”
For Hammer, traveling in Cambodia can be joyful.
“You’re dealing with good people, and it’s a beautiful environment,” he said. “The monks there are some of the smartest and funniest and most kind and gentle people I’ve had a chance to work with.”
It also can be heartbreaking.
“It’s not all fun and games,” Hammer said. “One of the programs we run is a junior high school run in partnership with the Ministry of Education. It has a boarding school for many of the children of families that live far away. The first week I was there, five of the children gathered mushrooms in the forest. They were the wrong mushrooms, and we had a medical crisis. It was International Children’s Day and we were going to have a big retreat and celebration. Instead of that, we had a funeral for one of the children that died as a result of the poisoning.”
The junior high school offers lunch daily for students, and Life and Hope provides all accommodations and food for children who need it.
The organization’s Food for Education program supplies rice and other food to 160 poor families in exchange for them sending their children to school. LHA also helps with medical care, health education, income-generating activities and home building.
LHA runs a sewing training center for young women, providing them with food, accommodations and training in life and business skills. Each woman is given a sewing machine, operated by foot pedal as electricity may not be available, so she can return to her village and make a living.
LHA also runs Children’s Development Village for poor children, many of whom are orphans; Program Advancing Girls’ Education, offering disadvantaged young girls, who face discrimination, room and board and other support; and the LHA Foreign Language School, which offers free English classes to poor children, which helps them find work in Cambodia’s growing tourist industry.
Volunteers and donations are welcomed by Life and Hope. To learn more, visit www.www.lifeandhopeangkor.org.
Or talk to Hammer. He’s got a lot to say and a lot to teach his students about how to make life better in Cambodia, in Detroit and in the rest of the world.
“You care about everybody,” he said. “That’s the answer.”