My story, of her

This post was originally written for and published on the Flight or Freedom blog, part a project documenting the stories of refugees to Canada. As the child of a refugee, I was asked to share a short story describing my mom’s experience, from my 2nd generation perspective. 

When I was a little girl, cuddled up by mom, I asked about the scars on her legs. They look like old burns; small, spherical, dried up blisters of damaged flesh.

She rarely volunteered stories of her childhood in Cambodia, but if I asked a specific question she always answered without hesitation. When she was a little girl herself, barely 10 years old, she was taken from her family by the Khmer Rouge and put in a labour camp. Every day for three years she worked the rice fields without rest from sun-up to sundown. The scars on her legs are mostly from leeches. They would prey on her in the watery fields, crawling under her skin until she cut them out.

Before I ever learned the facts of the savage Khmer Rouge regime of 1975-1979, these occasional stories made me aware that mom had experienced inhumane horror.

If I didn’t want to eat what was on my plate, she’d remind me that I was lucky to have any food at all, because she had known gnawing hunger every day in the labour camp. If I wanted something new that we couldn’t afford, she reminded me that having a safe home and clothes was a luxury she dreamt about as a child.

These stories were never meant to scare me, but simply illustrate how fortunate our lives were. That perspective has become normal to me. I’ve always known that nothing I experience will near the terror that still wakes mom screaming in the middle of the night. I know never to waste food, even scraps, around her. I know she hates rodents, because she used to have to eat them raw in order to survive. That she can’t stand dressing head-to-toe in black, because it reminds her of the Khmer Rouge uniform. And that she still can’t watch a film scene with graphic violence or death, because it’s too reminiscent of her former reality.

I’ve always wondered what I would do, if by crazy happenstance, I met the people who hurt my mom. Assumedly, that would be the moment I would know if I could kill another human being. Not that I actually would, because that is not the person mom raised me to be. She has never once shown anger or complained about her experience. That’s the thing about my mom. Hardship made her more: more strong, more honest, more moral, more fearful, more sure about what is right and what is of value.

The past will always be a part of my mom, and maybe in a way it’s a part of me too. But it doesn’t define her life here and now.

I can get caught up in the worries of our fast-paced North American life. What I’m going to do, what I hope to achieve, what my version of success looks like. But when I visit mom, she reminds me that life is simple. She revels in having good food, a warm house, and her family around her. She knows what it’s like to have lost everything. And having it once again, in the home she has made here, is all she ever really asks for.

Read this story on the Flight or Freedom site.


Om (Uncle) Saveth, Excerpt 1

He was 15 when they came.

Soldiers dressed all in black. Telling them they had to leave. Abandon their home and exit the city, with only the clothes on their back and what they could carry.

He and his mother, siblings, aunt, uncle and cousins gathered together in the countryside. They made makeshift shelters from bamboo leaves that barely stopped the rain and every day reported for work in the village. Food was rationed to each family, but everyone was always hungry.

There was nothing to be done; the Khmer Rouge had the guns and the power. And quickly everyone learned the rules. Do what you’re told, go where you’re told, say nothing, think nothing.
Everything stopped. No one went to school or work or the market. No one talked with friends; no one really was a friend. There was no more gathering around the radio at night to listen to news; there wasn’t even music anymore. The revolutionary anthem was the only song you were allowed to sing.

His father had escaped, hiding in another village where there was more food and fewer rules. But couldn’t stay away for long. Not able to be apart from them all, surviving, while they starved.
It only took five days for someone to turn his father in. They had less than a week together.

He and his older brother were working when they found out. And he started to cry. “Stop,” said his brother, “Or they’ll kill you too.”

It got worse. They were separated. All but the youngest siblings were sent to different camps, with others their own age. The camps moved constantly, travelling from field to field, growing rice. There was so much rice. This was the province with the richest crops. But they were only given enough to stay alive one more day. If that.

He lost count of how many times his camp moved. Maybe 40 or 50 times in three years, he guessed. Sometimes they stayed outside by the fields. Sometimes in abandoned pagodas. Once houses of peace, they were turned into something evil. They were no longer places of worship but of fear, where men were punished for the smallest crime. Shackled at the feet and hands in rows and rows, lying in their own filth under the hot sun for days.

“Were you ever punished?” I asked him, sick to my stomach. He couldn’t really answer, just looked at me sombrely, voice cracking and said, “It was very bad.” I couldn’t bear to ask exactly what they did to him.

“Did you think you were going to survive?” I questioned.
“Every day I thought I was going to die,” he answered.

There was no hope.


My family has an amazing story. My mother, her 6 siblings and their mother stand out when compared to many families from their home country. Because they all survived.

My family is from Cambodia. They were there when Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge took over the country in 1975. Their family was torn apart. Most of the children were taken from home and placed in different labour camps across the Battambang province. My grandfather was taken away and never heard from again. My grandmother was left in a village with no money, no food, no support and her 2 youngest children.

Every regular Cambodian family has the same kind of story. Their country, their villages, their homes were decimated. The Khmer Rouge  stopped regular life, work, destroyed basic infrastructure and turned the country into a system of agrarian labour camps. During their 4 years in power they brutally murdered or caused the death (from starvation or disease) of 1.2 to 2 million of their countrymen (approximately 1/3rd of the population).

Sometimes it feels like a genocide that the world doesn’t remember. But my family remembers. They remember being dragged away from their home. They remember working as children (my mother was 10 years old) in rice fields, water up to their necks at times, sun-up to sun-down. They remember being scared, starved, beaten. They remember watching the Khmer Rouge leave, and running away from the camps. They remember escaping to refugee camps, finding some family members and not others. They remember going back for each other. They remember walking, crawling across land-mine fields, sneaking across borders. They remember everything.

I’m writing a book of their stories, and that’s what this blog is about.

I’ll be writing 3 types of  posts. I’ll write about the process of writing these stories – the research I do/find, the interviews and so on. As I start to compose actual stories, I’ll post snippets and excerpts. As well, I will post interesting information I find about Cambodia as a place – both its past and current state of affairs.

I don’t know how long this will take. I don’t know how it will affect me or my family.

I’m a history lover who has never deeply explored my family’s past, my Cambodian heritage and the horrendous genocide that defines every Cambodian today.

When I was 11 years old I read one of the few novels on the genocide. I finished it in a day or two. When I read the final page and closed the book, I felt as if I couldn’t breathe. You know those memories from childhood that just stand out? I vividly remember where I was sitting in the house, what I was feeling and what I was thinking about. I was picturing my mom, my age, in a camp. I was picturing the stories she occasionally told us. About pulling leaches from her body and eating rats to survive the hunger one more day. And working so hard to please the camp wardens, they allowed her to run the one hour trip to her dad’s prison camp, for a glimpse of him through the barbed wire. How one day he just wasn’t there anymore.

Writing these words makes me feel exactly like I did the day I finished reading that book. Helpless. Knowing I can never make it better, and never take away the horror from one of the people I love most in the world. I’ve avoided that feeling by avoiding the history, the stories. But I want those stories. I want them written down and saved for my family for generations to come. Because my mom and my aunt and uncles and grandmother are my heroes. They fought for their lives, they fought for each other and they are the best people I know.