In 1994, Pierre Tami established the Hagar Shelter in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, as a haven for women who had fallen victim to violence and sexual exploitation. Hagar has assisted more than 100,000 women and children through its social programs and economic projects. The U.S. State Department in 2004 selected Tami and the Hagar project as one of its six international heroes in the struggle against the global slave trade. The story of how Pierre Tami created one of the most innovative programs for freed slaves will inspire even the most entrenched cynics.
Tami, a Swiss businessman, had devoted 12 years to helping people in crisis—including a long stint in Japan aiding the homeless in the parks of downtown Osaka and several years more building up a youth drop-in center in Singapore. He could not explain why, but he understood these ventures as a training ground for some greater project. He received the invitation to visit Cambodia in June 1990.
A civil war threatened to throw the country into chaos. Though the ruling regime was paranoid about the presence of foreigners, it asked Tami to evaluate the potential of providing aid to its impoverished masses. Only 25 nongovernmental aid agencies were operating in Cambodia at the time.
When Tami first arrived in one village, silence blanketed the town—except for a single, terrible wail. A mother had just lost her 6-month-old baby, a casualty of malaria. She spilled out her agony and protest.
A traditional Cambodian (Khmer) proverb muses, "If Heaven could cry, then Cambodia would never know drought." For Tami, the mother's wail became the cry of a people, and it haunted him long after he had left the country.