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.