The Jungle of Refugees (Cont.)
I went to attend the fourth grade in Nong Chan Primary School the next day. It was around mid May of 1985. There were some older students in my class, but they were not as old as I was. The oldest ones were about five years my junior. Because of the Khmer Rouge’s abolition of education and the frequent moves among the refugees who lived in camps along the border, enforcement of the regulation on student’s ages and grade level was lax. Still, people could physically tell that I was the oldest student in the class.
My going to school full time presented a bit of a challenge for me, domestically, for I was expected to perform many household chores. I could tell that Om Kin and Om Ok, the sibling elder with whom I lived, were not happy about my almost day-long absence every day from the house/hut because, when the water trucks arrived, I needed to go fetch water from the communal tanks for our daily use before it all was taken by other camp residents. To ease our concern about water, Vuthda and I used a blue plastic sheet to construct a water container by using bamboo strips to build a large basket and placed the plastic sheet within it to store water. Thus, I was reprieved from being fussed at on failing to fetch enough water for the daily consumption as I would fill our water container to capacity, which could last us for a few days, whenever I had the opportunity to obtain more. As for firewood for cooking, the entire Site 2 camp was fenced off with barbed wires and people were not allowed to venture outside the fences. Therefore, UNBRO had to truck in firewood to provide for every family’s cooking needs. This made my life a bit easier. I would just go to the firewood storage area and presented our family ID card to obtain the wood every week.
After getting my daily routine in place, I began to concentrate on my studies in earnest, in both Khmer and English. The primary school which I attended offered basic level English courses as part of its curriculum. Thus, with the other two private basic level English courses I took, I had a total of three basic level classes going on at the same time. To avoid redundancy, I made sure that the classes I took were given out of different textbooks: one was based on an American textbook called Lado, the other two were based on the British texts called Oxford and Essential English. To remind myself of those formative times, I still keep some of those old English textbooks with me.
Despite my long absence from school, I was able to catch up with the learning process relatively well. However, some subjects such as arithmetic, geometry, biology, and other science-based courses presented tremendous challenges for me. I had a hard time trying to understand the conceptual frameworks of many problems. One of these problems which I dreaded most was courier, a kind of mathematic problem involving runners who started running from point A to point B at different points of departure with different speeds. We needed to figure out how long would it take for runner number two to catch up with runner number one. To this day, I am still unable to master the conceptual framework upon which a formula could be used to solve such problems.
After evaluating myself and assessing my strengths and weaknesses in dealing with the fourth grade courses I was studying, I realized that I needed a lot of help with mathematics and science-related subjects. Thus, I approached a smart young boy named Von Vattara and asked if he would be willing to spend some of his spare times to teach me how to solve complex mathematical problems. Vattara agreed to help me. Each day, Vattara and I would come to class about half an hour before it started and used the time to go over our lessons. Vattara patiently explained to me how to solve mathematical problems by making me write down the different formulae and theorems and memorizing them. He further told me how to look for clues in each problem, and what kind of formula or theorem to use to solve it, accordingly. After a few months of diligent effort and rigorous practice, my ability to deal with fourth grade mathematical problems improved markedly. I was able to solve most problems, if not all.
By about mid August, Om Ok’s wife, Om Ky, along with two of his children and about half a dozen of his grandchildren, arrived in the camp. In the letter, Om Ok had only asked Odom to bring his wife to reunite with him, but, obviously Odom had persuaded his children to come as well. To my absolute surprise, I learned that my mother and younger brother, Buntha, had also attempted to come to the camp. But, because of lack of funds to pay for their passage across the border, my brother was stuck in a Cambodian village near the border along with Om Ok’s adopted daughter and one of his grandchildren while my mother returned to stay with one of my paternal cousins in Phnom Penh. Odom did not come to Site 2, but one of his lieutenants did, to collect trafficking fares from family members of his human cargo. At that point, I realized that my brother and Om Ok’s adopted daughter were kept on the other side of the border to ensure that we pay what was still owed to the smugglers before further services were rendered. I also began to realize why Odom brought Om Ok and me to the border camp almost free in the first place. It was very likely that he knew that the relatives we left behind would eventually come to the refugee camp as well, for life in a communist-ruled country had never been desirable. To this end, Odom was not only a human trafficker but also a shrewd businessman.
After learning of the situation my brother, Buntha, was in, I decided to send whatever money I had to have him come to reunite with me, while informing Heang of my decision. I also asked Heang if he could provide funds for me to arrange to get our mother to come to the camp, for it would be hard for her to return to live in Phum Chi Ro alone after it was known that she had abandoned one political regime for another. It took us a while using snail mail and smugglers as modes of communication to get our messages to one another. In the meantime, Om Ok and his family moved to live in a different house. Om Ky, who was my paternal aunt, insisted that I come to live with her because, as my closest relative, she had an obligation to look after me. So I bade goodbye to Om Kin and went to live with Om Ky and the rest of her family from that point on.
While waiting for news and/or responses from both of my brothers, who lived a world apart, the various primary schools in Site 2 organized the first entrance exam to secondary school. As a fourth grader, I was one of the students among those who would be taking the tests, which lasted for two days. With only several months of learning, I was fully aware that my knowledge on every subject was very weak. Thus, I studied doubly hard in preparation for the exam. This was perhaps my only chance to make my way back to formal education which had been abandoned for ten years. The stakes were quite high for me. I quietly told myself that I must not fail, or I would live as an ill-educated person for the rest of my life.
When the appointed date arrived, we fourth graders all went to take our exam at the only secondary school located in Ampil camp. There were about 300 students coming from three different primary schools taking the exam. During the exam, I was a bit nervous, but I told myself to remain calm. I tackled each subject with confidence even though I was not sure I answered the questions correctly. By the time the exam was concluded, I walked out of the exam room with a feeling that I was doing okay, or at least I thought I was. We had to wait for a few days before the test results were announced, as all the handwritten answers were examined, scores were given, and all the points were tallied up. Before the official score announcement was posted, word was getting out among school officials that three students who held the highest scores had only three-quarters of a point separating them in ranking. Two of the three students were from Phnom Dangrek Primary School while the other was from Nong Chan’s, the school where I attended. As the names of the top three students were revealed, I was astounded to learn that one of the three students was me. Unbelievable! It took me a while to accept the news that it was actually true.
(To be continued)