After recovering from the initial shock of learning that my mother had been arrested by the Thai taskforce soldiers and sent to a camp located hundreds of miles away from where I lived, I wrote a long letter to my brother, Heang, in the U.S. telling him the situation we were in and asking him for advice on what to do next. I was at my wit’s end. A family of three people living separately in three different refugee camps located hundreds of miles from one another in a foreign country, which did not allow refugees to travel from one camp to another, was truly a messy situation for anyone to deal with. The stresses must have driven Heang nuts upon learning of the messy situation we were in. But no matter what difficult situation I presented to him, Heang had never blamed me or anyone else for causing him all the headaches in trying to rescue us from the quagmire. In his letters responding to my endless requests for helps throughout those four tumultuous years living in the various refugee camps, Heang never once blamed me for making irrational decision. His patience seemed to be limitless. Beside sending letter to Heang, I also sent a letter to Buntha in Khao I Dang camp telling him to stay put for the time being while waiting for Heang’s suggestion on what we should do to get out of the difficult situation we were facing.
While waiting for Heang’s response and suggestion on what to do regarding our family separation, I returned to work at the technical school for handicapped people as usual. In the meantime, I learned that the results of our high school exit exam were posted on the campus of Phnom Dangrek High School. I was not quite confident about my performance on the test. Thus, just in case I failed the exam, which would be more bad news for my stressful life to deal with, I tried to keep myself away from learning the result of my test as long as possible. I knew, sooner or later, one of my friends, who had also taken the test, would come to tell me what the result of my test was. In an attempt to give my state of mind a few more hours of solace, I took a group of my students to a clearing behind the technical school and let them sketch-draw natural scenery of the refugee camp. After they finished their sketches, my students and I returned to the classroom to finalize the drawings. Just as I arrived in front of the classroom, a friend of mine came to see me with a wan smile on his face. He delivered a piece of good news to me that I had passed the test, but he didn’t. It was an extraordinary moment for both of us, a depressed young man receiving exciting news from his defeated friend. I thanked my friend for pedaling his bicycle for about two miles to deliver the good news to me and offered him words of encouragement. I went inside the classroom and shared the good news of passing the exam with my students. Afterward, I told them to take the rest of the day off while going to examine my name on the test result’s bulletin board personally to make sure that it was really my name that was among those who passed the test.
Just as I was about to go to see my test result, Koy’s aunt, Samnam who was teaching the sixth grade classes at Phnom Dangrek High School, arrived to tell me the news of my success in passing the exam in order to lift my spirits up, for she thought that I had been receiving so much bad and depressing news lately. At that point, I was 100 percent sure that I had passed the test. But to feel the excitement personally, I decided to go to see the bulletin board where the names of all the test takers were posted and experience the thrill amongst those of my peers. It was a rather somber place at the bulletin board where the test results were posted because, needless to say, those who did not pass the test had a rather tough time accepting the outcomes. Out of the 21 people who took the test in the classroom with me, only 11, roughly 50% made it. My name, as a successful candidate, was sandwiched between three other names crossed out by red ink to indicate failures. After seeing what the test results looked like, I quietly left the area without showing any feeling of excitement or sadness.
I spent the entire month of January 1988 communicating with my brothers, Heang and Buntha, and my mother via letters. It was a rather lengthy process for me to piece together information about each of our individual life situations so that we could make as informed decision as possible to put our lives back together. Buntha told me that my mother was sent to Ta Tum camp along with Om Ok and his extended family who had been arrested by the Thai soldiers at about the same time she was arrested. Upon learning of this news, I felt a bit of relief as my mother would at least have some in-laws to depend on while being separated from us. As for Heang, his advice to me was to find a way to get us back together in one place, either in Site 2 or Ta Tum camp, and stay away from Khao I Dang. With this tentative instruction from Heang, I wrote another letter to Buntha asking him if he could find any means to get back to Site 2 since the distance between Site 2 and Khao I Dang wasn’t that far. Once we both reunited, we would figure out whether to go join our mom in Ta Tum camp or finding ways to get her back to Site 2. Buntha told me that he knew a teenage boy who could speak Thai and use his Thai language skill to travel between Khao I Dang and Site 2 with ease by riding on commuter buses. So I told Buntha to contact the boy and implore if that boy could act as a guide and help bring him to Site 2. Though the risk of Buntha getting arrested by Thai police was a possibility, I felt that it was safer for him to disguise as a Thai traveling on commuter buses because, based on what I learned, Thai police rarely stop buses to search for illegal travelers.
By February, my friend, Koy, his mother, Sunphan, and his aunt, Samnam, whose relatives lived in the state of Maryland, had been allowed to resettle in the U.S.A. As a result, I found myself living alone at this point. But, it was not for long. By mid March, Buntha had successfully sneaked back into Site 2. He brought along the boy who had helped him traveling by buses back to Site 2. I was so happy to see Buntha and profusely thanked the boy who had helped reunite us. After getting some food for both of them to eat, I asked them how they managed to travel about 50 miles in distance across Thailand. It sounded less complicated than one might have thought. Because Thais and Cambodians looked alike physically, Buntha and his traveling companion disguised themselves as Thai citizens. They sneaked out of Khao I Dang camp and walked to a bus station in the area. Afterward, they bought bus tickets and climbed on board just like any other Thai travelers. Once they reached a village near Site 2 camp, they got off the bus and walked the rest of the way.
After reuniting with Buntha, I wrote a letter to Heang asking him what we should do next regarding our mother, whether I should find ways to bring her to Site 2 or Buntha and I go there to reunite with her. Heang told me that we should not attempt to either bring Mom to Site 2 or go to Ta Tum camp as the risks for either one of us traveling between these two faraway camps were too great. His advice was that we should stay put and wait for him to work with the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok to see if it could bring us for interviews separately when our applications for resettlement in the United States were being considered. In the meantime, I contacted the office of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Site 2 to ask if it was possible for the Red Cross to help bring my mother to Site 2 because she was living alone in Ta Tum camp. One of the Red Cross staffs told me that ICRC provided only tracing for missing family members. It could not and would not help separated family members reunite.
To keep our lives busy, Buntha and I returned to attend Phnom Dangrek High School. Though, technically, Phnom Dangrek High School did not have classes beyond the eighth grade, a couple of classrooms were converted into a junior college of some sorts to offer courses to those students who had received high school diplomas and wished to continue their studies. Taking advantage of the offer and to keep myself educated, I joined the junior college student corps at Phnom Dangrek High School for several months during the 1988 school year. While going back to school, I asked my Spanish supervisor, Brother Kike, at the technical school for handicapped people to let me continue teaching drawing to the orphan children part time. Brother Kike agreed to my request, and I spent most of my spare times in between classes teaching perspective drawing to the orphan children.
(To be continued)