Wednesday, August 21, 2013


I spent the remaining day going about Site 2 camp saying goodbye to my friends and classmates at Phnom Dangrek High School. Our schedule for departure from Site 2 camp was at six o’clock in the morning. But we all arrived at the bus station at five o’clock, for we didn’t want to miss the opportunity to go to America, which could only happen once in a life time. When we arrived at the bus station, no bus had arrived to pick us up yet. So I took the opportunity to see two of my best friends, Sambath and Saren, who lived at the boarding house located in Phnom Dangrek High School campus one last time as I wanted to give Sambath some of my personal belongings. Vichet, another friend who came to see me off, accompanied me to see Sambath and Saren. We spent about five minutes talking to one another before I returned to the bus station with tears welling in my eyes. After arriving in Phanat Nikum camp, the first order of businesses for us was to get our medical examination done. Those who were found to carry communicable diseases such as tuberculosis had to go through treatment until the condition was acceptable for entry into the United States. My mother, Buntha, and I were relatively healthy. Hence, we all passed the medical exams and were given only a short stay in Phanat Nikum. In the meantime, Buntha and I volunteered to teach elementary English lesson to refugee children while going to attend English classes on American culture and tradition during our spare times. We spent about three months in Phanat Nikum camp. After receiving our clean bills of health, we were told to get ready for our departure for the United States. Finally, our quest for redemption in life had come to the last chapter. A new beginning was about to dawn upon us. As a wayfarer, I had spent exactly four years going through many trials and tribulations in the various refugee camps. There would be many more challenges ahead for me. But whatever challenges that America had to offer me, I felt I was ready for it. After all, if I could make it in a tough place like Cambodia and the dreary refugee camps, I believed I could make it anywhere. Since I was little, talking about the United States had always conjured up fascinating image in my imagination. I didn’t know exactly what it was; but there was always a sense of optimism hanging in the air. Thus, as we prepared to depart for America, I was very optimistic that my life would turn for the better. With that optimistic feeling, we went to Bangkok Airport on the evening of January 18, 1989 to board a Northwest Airline flight bound for the United States. Aside from a lone man, we were the only Cambodian refugee family on that flight along with several families of ethnic Hmong refugees who happened to be heading for Minnesota as well. During one of our stopovers at Tokyo Airport, an airline official, who had noticed that I could speak some English, assigned me to take care of a group of Hmong men by showing them where and how to use the men’s room. The Hmong and I spoke a totally different language, and we could not understand each other at all. But through gestures and observation, I was able to get all of them to stand in front of the urinals and doing the things which seemed to come to us naturally. After a brief stop in Tokyo, we boarded another flight bound for Seattle, Washington. During our flight from Tokyo to Seattle, a Hmong child was refusing to wear a diaper a flight attendant asked his mom to put on him. Unable to make the child comply, the flight attendant walked up to me and ordered me to go and make the child wear the diaper. Once again, prejudice had prevailed as the flight attendant appeared to believe that I spoke the Hmong’s language since we looked alike. Without saying a word of protest, I got up and walked with the flight attendant to get the child to wear the diaper. Miraculously, upon seeing me approaching him, the child let his mother put the diaper on him willingly. By the way, I didn’t even know what the diaper was used for. I only fully knew of its functionality upon arriving in Minnesota after seeing my nephews wearing them. What a comic relief! ***** By the time we arrived in Seattle, the group of Hmong men had accepted me as their de facto leader. Hence, they were walking with me as we headed toward the customs stations. Unbeknownst to me, the Hmong men had been marked for searches by the U.S. custom agents and I was mistaken as being one of them. It should be noted that the Hmongs were an ethnic minority coming from Laos, many of whom used to live near the Golden Triangle area known for producing illegal drugs. Therefore, to ensure that no one brought illicit drugs into the U.S., most of the adult Hmong men, including me, were subjected to searches. While I was being thoroughly searched by a custom agent along with the Hmongs, my mother and Buntha had gone through the customs checkpoint. After waiting for me for some time, my mother began to suspect that something had gone wrong. So she told Buntha to watch over our luggage and walked right back into the forbidden zone of the airport. Her action caused a slight commotion when the custom agents were trying to stop her from entering the forbidden zone. Unable to understand or speak any English, my mother insisted that she be allowed to re-enter the airport to look for me. Fortunately, a Cambodian-speaking employee of the airport overheard my mother’s speech and came over to assist in explaining to her the airport’s protocol. The Cambodian-speaking airport employee assured my mother that I would be coming to meet her very soon. But my mother was not convinced. She remained at the customs gate until she saw me coming out. The airport employee explained the situation to me, and I thanked him for his assistance. Our flight from Seattle to Minneapolis was less eventful. My Hmong companions and I were still traveling together, and we appeared to have cleared all the hurdles at this point. Our flight touched down in Minneapolis at about seven o’clock in the evening. Heang had brought a number of his friends to welcome us at the airport. After almost one decade of separation and many agonizing years spent in refugee camps, we were once again reunited in a new homeland. Everyone was so excited. I looked around and saw that my fellow Hmong companions had been welcomed by their relatives as well. Judging from the festive atmosphere, it was really sweet to see all the happy faces around. Though tomorrow might be different, it was worth noticing that the fascinating image of America which used to conjure up in my mind had now unfolded right in front of my eyes. We had set foot in America for only one day, but we felt that the fear and anxiety associated with going to a foreign land appeared to be absent. The smiles and projections of confidence displayed by the people who came to welcome us to America had given us plenty of assurances that this was the place where lives could be transformed regardless of who we were. As a humble refugee being plucked up from a wretched camp and dropped off in a place like the United States, it was kind of hard to accurately describe my initial feelings and impressions about America. The closest metaphor for it was probably like that of a caged bird being set free. Though nobody told me that I was free, I intrinsically sensed it the minute I set foot in America.
(The End)

Wednesday, August 14, 2013


Deliverance (Continued)
Since the beginning of 1988, a small number of refugees, who had been sponsored by their relatives living in the United States, France, and Australia, began to depart from Site 2 for another camp near Bangkok to have their medical exams done while waiting for the last leg of their journey to the real outside world. Every time I learned about people leaving Site 2 for a third country, I got very excited as it gave me hope that one day I would be one of those people leaving a refugee camp for good.

Some time in July 1988, we received a letter from the Red Cross telling us to prepare for an interview with the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok regarding our application for resettlement in the United States. Finally, the most awaited opportunity for us to seek redemption for our lives had arrived. I was so excited that for a couple of weeks leading to the interview date, I completely lost concentration on my school work. The excitement and hope of being able to go to the U.S.A. was too overwhelming for me to contain myself.

When the appointed time arrived for us to go to have our interview with the U.S. Embassy staff, we put on our best clothes and went to board a bus, which came to pick us up at the main entrance to Site 2 camp. There were several other families going for their interviews as well. We spent a few hours riding on the bus before it brought us to a center where the interviews were being conducted. After having our names registered, we were told to wait for our names to be called up which would mean that a consular officer was ready to see us. By about midday, we were called to meet with an American consular officer, a young man named Tony, for our interview. During the course of our interview, Tony asked my mother several questions regarding the relationship between her and my brother, Heang. Because my mother was semi-illiterate, Heang had attached a couple of photos with the sponsorship documents so that she could identify people in the photos to prove that we were related. In a somewhat confusing situation, my mother misidentified a child as being her grandchild. After seeing her making a mistake, I promptly interrupted the conversation and made the correction on her behalf. In the sponsoring document, I was listed as a minor and was probably not allowed to answer any questions. Hence, my interruption caused the interview to end rather abruptly. We didn’t know whether that short interview was good or bad for us; but I had a feeling that something had gone wrong. We returned to the reception area and waited for the rest of the day until about 3:00 p.m. when the bus came to pick us up and took us back to Site 2.

One week after our interview with the U.S. consular, I was called to the Red Cross office in Site 2 to be informed of our interview’s result. The Red Cross official showed me a list of names of the people who had gone to the interview with us at the U.S. consulate center. I looked for our family’s name on the list and found that it was crossed over by an ink pen. I asked the Red Cross official what that meant. The official explained to me that the names which had ink marks over them meant that they were being rejected by the U.S. Embassy. I was shocked to learn that the U.S. Embassy had rejected our application to be reunited with our relatives in America. The Red Cross official gave me two pages of documents; one had my mother’s name on it while the other had Buntha’s and my names on it. On the upper margin of my mother’s document, there were two hand-written words in quotation marks which said: “Fifth Column.” At that time, my English was not as proficient, and I didn’t know what the word “fifth column” meant. I tried looking it up in the dictionaries but there was no entry for the word “fifth column.” It took me about a week before I was able to find out the meaning of the word “fifth column” while skimming through an idiomatic booklet belonging to a friend of mine.

“Fifth Column” refers to people of dishonest character, which meant that we were being accused of dishonesty. It was a serious charge indeed for the desperate refugees like us whose virtue had been suspected. After learning of the meaning of the word “fifth column” and the implication it could have on our hope to resettle in the U.S.A., I became depressed and extremely upset at the lost opportunity. In a fit of frustration, I blamed my mother for making the blunder which cost us the opportunity to reunite with Heang and possibly our future. On top of that, we had risked our lives going through so many perils for nothing. As soon as I let go of my frustration, I realized that I had gone too far. But it was too late to take it back. Upon hearing my upsetting words, my poor mother sobbed bitterly, for she believed that her failure to answer questions posted by the U.S. Embassy’s staff correctly cost us dearly.

It took both, my mother and I, some time to recover from the sadness and madness that gripped our feelings. However, despite knowing that my mother had forgiven me for the irrational blame I placed upon her, I still had a tough time getting over the regret stemming from my unkind reaction toward her innocent mistake. The feeling of remorse keeps haunting me to this day whenever I think of that spiteful moment between child and mother.

My mother seemed to know that I had a legitimate reason to be upset at her failure to get everything right in our interview because she was, as head of the family, the only hope for us to get away from the wretched refugee camp. Thus, she neither reprimanded nor disciplined me for my uncharacteristic behavior. She just let me vent my frustration and accepted the fact that she was responsible for getting us into another quagmire.

In hindsight, it was understandable that I was so upset over what seemed to be a trivial issue. Because we had lived under dictatorial governments all our lives, we always accepted that whatever verdict the government or its agencies handed down upon us was final. Hence, the U.S. Embassy’s decision to reject our application for resettlement in the U.S.A. was a doom’s day for us. This defeatist belief coupled with my lack of knowledge on how the U.S. Government operated caused great grief for us, emotionally. I had not the vaguest idea that people in America could appeal official decisions concerning their application for a myriad of reasons. With a rather hopeless feeling, I wrote a letter to my brother, Heang, informing him of our failure to pass the interview for resettlement in the U.S.A. I told him of the possible causes of our failure and the “fifth column” remark being branded upon us by the U.S. Embassy.

As our sponsor, Heang had also received a letter from the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok informing him of the result of our interview. But he was not told all the details. So after receiving my letter, Heang set about filing an appeal for our case to be reconsidered. The fact that Heang came to the U.S. as someone else’s child, which was a false pretense, convincing the Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS), the predecessor of Bureau of Citizen and Immigration Services (BCIS), that we were truly related as siblings, and parent and children, needed a lot of proof. Thus, to ensure that we wouldn’t face another debacle, Heang resorted to the ultimate procedure to legitimize his claim, once and for all, by having our DNA tested, if the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok needed the hard proof. In the late 1980s, DNA testing wasn’t as widely use as it is nowadays. But Heang had enlisted the help of his employer who had a friend working in medical field in Bangkok to help facilitate the process.

Having all supporting documents in hands, Heang went to meet with a local INS official in Minnesota to appeal our case. He told me later that he spent more than an hour arguing our case before the INS official. At the end, INS agreed to let us immigrate to the U.S. on condition that we would be subjected to DNA testing if the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok deemed necessary. Afterward, Heang sent me the INS’s approval letter and informed us to wait for another round of interview with the U.S. Embassy.

By late September 1988, those who had been interviewed and accepted by the U.S. Embassy were informed by the Red Cross that they would be moving to a transit camp called Phanat Nikum to await their departure for the United States. The news brought sadness to me again, for I was not sure when or if the U.S. Embassy would ever call us for another interview. Just as I was falling into another depressed state, a friend of mine, Borath, who worked at the Red Cross office in Site 2, came to see me with the greatest news I longed to hear all those years living in the refugee camps. The U.S. Embassy had accepted us for resettlement in the United States. Borath handed me the appeal petition Heang had submitted to the INS office in Minnesota and the letter of acceptance issued by the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok. He told me that we had only two days left (actually a day and a half, given the fact that I was informed about our departure at about two p.m.) to get ready for departure to Phanat Nikum camp along with the other families. Apparently, the U.S. Embassy decided to give us a break by adding our names to the list of people who would depart for Phanat Nikum without bothering to interview us again. On the top margin of the appeal petition, I found yet another hand written remark which stated that: “Petitioner is willing to have blood test if you find it necessary.” Obviously, INS official in Minnesota had penned this remark on the appeal form before sending it to the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok.

(To be Continued)

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Food for Thought (Weekly)

After the election, anxiety in Cambodia appears to be on the rise as both, the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) and the Cambodian People Party (CPP), which won most of the votes begin to talk tough at each other.  One could only hope that the rhetorics will not be turned into actions, for once one party acts, the other will react.  And who knows, what could happen when the ball starts rolling.  The worst scenario is that supporters of the CNRP stages a protest to demand proper resolution to alleged election fraud/irregularity and the CPP which controls the government and security forces would use many anti-freedom laws it created over the past several years as pretext to crack down on the demonstrators.  If this scenario were to happen, we could certainly expect to see bloodshed, and, if both sides are determine to win at any cost, then Cambodia will expect to see another tragedy.

As Cambodian citizens, we could only hope that our politicians are wise enough by now to foresee what the costs to the nation and the people if they let their ambition to attain power overrules their rationale.  Nowadays, one could not expect people to behave the way they used to.  Nor could anyone, especially ruler, expect to see people respect the authority when they felt their will has been trampled upon.  There are countless examples in recent memory to ignore this fact. The revolutions in Yugoslavia, Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya were all too real to not take notice.  Given the fact that all of these countries were ruled by dictators with well groomed security forces to smash virtually just about any form of uprising, it is absolutely unbelievable to see them failed at their own game, that is the use of violence.

Regarding the popular uprising that brought down the dictators who used to rule Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, Cambodian Prime Minister, Mr. Hun Sen, once said that he would "close the doors and beat the dogs" meaning that he would crack down hard on any group of people who dare to challenge his authority.  Well, at this point in time of Cambodian history, Mr. Hun Sen might need to reconsider his idea of "closing the doors and beat the dogs" as it might not be wise to try to beat the angry dogs, many of which might be crazy.  Certainly, neither the dogs nor the dogs beater would win.  No matter what the final outcomes would be, there will be death tolls to count and wound to heal.  Enough talk about this yet to happen scenario, let's look at some possible, peaceful scenarios which could bring about a win-win outcomes for all Cambodians.

For the CPP which is an incumbent ruler in Cambodia, the election result, albeit it is acceptable, indicated that the people have disapproved of what it has done over the last mandate of governance.  Clearly, the significant decrease of representative seats in the National Assembly is a direct result of this disapproval.  If the election result were to be taken as an indication, it is certain that people wanted to change, or at least to reform, the way the country is governed.  In a democratic political process, people speak with their votes, not their voices.  Hence, they want the change or reform to be peaceful, smooth, and tranquil.  Can our politicians deliver this desire?  Only time will tell.
One way to solve a crisis peacefully, smoothly, and tranquilly is through COMPROMISE. What this means is that both the CPP and CNRP must give up something in order to meet each other's demands on one hand, and to meet what the people who votes for them wanted on the other. It is safe to say that what the majority of people wanted is change or reform to the way the country is managed. But how would two antagonistically opposing forces go about to reach a compromise? The best answer is: Put the nation's and people's interests above anything else.
As a modest prosposal, a power sharing in the form of government administration would be the least painful route to settle a possible political impass. However, this power-sahring formula should not be like the one conceived by the UN/UNTAC in 1993. We all know by now that it was a recipe for administrative incompetence. Once, it is acceptable to all parties as to which party won the majority of the National Assembly's seats, that party shall have the right to form a government whose ministerial, provincial, and district portfolios are divided proportionally among the parties that won parliamentary seats. Each ministry, province, or district should be assigned and be the sole domain of one party or another. This way, people could see and determine who or which party is responsible for improvement or lack there of, in each level of government. It would also provide a competetive admosphere among those who are in charge of government administration. As a result, all politicians and political parties would be more receptive to what the people wanted. Also, as a mechanism for discipline or dealing with administrative misconduct, all parties involved should form and assign a committee to oversee, evaluate and determine the removal, relocation, or promotion of individuals within the ranks and files of this power-sharing administration.
With all these possible scenarios in mind, let us hope for the best.

Friday, August 2, 2013


Deliverance (Cont.) In the second week of April, in which we Cambodians, as well as Thais, were celebrating New Year, a friend of mine named Por Sararith took me to see the festivities and classical dance performances in Site 2 South. While going from place to place, we ran into a 23 years-old blonde, beautiful Australian journalist named Lyndal Barry. Sararith told me that he used to strike up conversations with Lyndal and found that she was a very friendly, cool young lady. Seeing that she was walking alone, Sararith and I walked up to her and introduced ourselves, as we frequently did when meeting foreigners in the camp to polish our English language skill. Lyndal was happy to find someone to talk with amid a sea of Cambodian refugees. Upon learning that we, too, were wandering around to see the festivities, Lyndal asked if we could act as her guides and take her to see different places and activities in Site 2 camp for the rest of the day. We were more than happy to accept her request as it gave us opportunity to practice our English language conversational skill at a more intimate level. Using my bicycle as a means of transportation, I asked Lyndal to ride behind me on the back saddle and took her to visit different places in the camp, accompanied by Sararith who was riding on a small BMX sport bike. After taking her to visit several places in the camp, Sararith and I took Lyndal to my house to relax and have some refreshment. Just as we were about to take her to the camp’s headquarters where she would get a ride back to her hotel in Thailand, Lyndal asked me if she could stay in my house overnight to see and feel how life was like in a refugee camp at night. I was a bit startled to hear Lyndal’s request. However, my naiveté got the better of me when I agreed to let her stay in my house overnight. The Thai military taskforces who oversaw Site 2 did not allow foreigners staying in the camp overnight because it was difficult for them to ensure their (foreigners) safety. But Lyndal was a journalist; and journalist sometimes took risks unnecessarily. I, too, had dreamed of becoming a journalist some day since I was a third grade student in the early 1970s. Just before I met Lyndal, I had read a book by a former Cambodian elementary school inspector named Ith Sarin who, in 1973, had crossed a political divide to the enemy’s side and written a journal to describe his experiences. Thus, having Lyndal stay in my house overnight in a refugee camp, where such action was forbidden, was a risky thrill that I somewhat found irresistible. All humanitarian aid workers and visitors who came into the camp every day had to leave by 3:30 p.m., or four o’clock at the latest. Therefore, with Sararith and Buntha as my helpers, we created an elaborate charade to fool our neighbors into thinking that the six-foot tall blonde Caucasian woman who came to visit me had left. At exactly 3:30 p.m., I openly walked Lyndal out of the front door, took her around the block, and surreptitiously sneaked her back into my house through the back door. After performing the charade, I closed my house’s front door and had Buntha sit in front of it to watch out for visitors who might drop by. He was to knock on the door three times, if he felt that someone was coming to pay me a visit, and try to stall the visitors as long as possible while I was sneaking Lyndal out the back door to hide in Ratha’s, my trusted friend, home which was located a couple of yards from us. Once we managed to put everything relatively under control, Sararith went to inform his single mother, Malay, that he would be spending the night at my house without telling her what we were up to. Hiding a six-foot tall blonde haired woman in a refugee camp was a challenging enterprise. Anyone who had lived or visited a refugee camp knew how dense the place was as far as spaces were concerned. People lived within feet of one another. Hence, Lyndal and I spent the rest of late afternoon sitting quietly inside my house. We waited until dark to have our dinner. After dinner, Lyndal conducted an interview with all three of us, asking us to tell her our life stories under the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia prior to coming to the refugee camp, and in the refugee camp. We spent about two hours talking with one another in a very low voice. I was the last to give Lyndal an interview. Because I was several years older than Buntha and Sararith, my memory of life under the Khmer Rouge regime was better than both of their memories. Therefore, Lyndal and I continued to talk late into the night. Once we were ready to go to bed, both Buntha and Sararith were sound asleep, one in a hammock while another was sleeping in a bed designed for one person. In the heat of excitement of having a young Caucasian woman staying in the camp illegally, I forgot about our sleeping arrangement. She was supposed to sleep in the small bed while the three of us boys would sleep in the larger bed which we used for the interview, as it gave us a larger space to sit inside a mosquito net. Not wanting to wake the two guys up to swap places, I asked Lyndal if she would mind I sleep in the same bed with her. She said no. So I laid a checkered scarf in between us to mark the boundary and slept next to her. For those readers who might suspect that there must have been something unbecoming that happened between us, I must confess that I was too timid to take advantage of the situation. The night was peaceful and calm. As morning arrived, we had to keep Lyndal hidden in the house until nine a.m. when some humanitarian aid workers started arriving in the camp. At that point, it would be okay for her to go about the camp as she could pass on as one of the aid workers. In the meantime, I asked Buntha and Sararith to keep her company while going to buy sandwiches for our breakfast. At about ten o’clock, Sararith and I took Lyndal to interview a couple of Khmer Krom people (ethnic Cambodians who lived in Lower Cambodia, now part of southern Vietnam) at a small pavilion located in front of Nong Chan camp’s administrative office. After the interview, we returned to my house to have lunch and relax for a couple of hours before sending Lyndal off to the outside world. Just as Lyndal and I left the house at about two o’clock in the afternoon, I ran into another friend of mine, Sary, who was bringing a vagabond old woman to see me. Upon taking a closer look at the old woman, I was shocked to discover that that vagrant woman was my mother. What a surprise! I froze and stopped everything I was doing. Overjoyed and with tears welling in my eyes, I grabbed my mother’s hand and walked her into the house while thanking Sary profusely for his assistance to her. Sary told me that he saw my mother wandering about the camp trying to find me. Once inside the house, I asked my mother how she managed to come to Site 2 camp, given the fact that it was located at least 100 miles away from her residence at Ta Tum camp. My mother told me that she met an old woman who could speak some Thai, and using the New Year’s celebration (Thais and Cambodians celebrate New Year on the same date) when police checks on travelers were relaxed, they sneaked out of the camp, disguised as poor Thai villagers, and hitch-hiked their way to Site 2 camp. Once they were out and about on the roads, a Thai military officer took pity on them and let them ride on the back of his jeep all the way to an area where Site 2 camp was located. After being dropped off, my mother and her traveling companion walked the rest of the way and sneaked into Site 2 along the many gaps in the fences. Unbelievable! My mother’s story of being helped by the Thai military officer was like a lost sheep being rescued by a wolf. In hindsight, the story of my mother, an illegal Cambodian vagabond, being assisted by a Thai military officer probably should not be a surprise to anyone because the area, which Thais called Issan, where many Cambodian refugee camps were located, used to be Cambodian territory before the 16th century. Many inhabitants living in the Issan region of Thailand were and are ethnic Khmers who still have a sense of kindred with their brethren in Cambodia. Hence, the discrete assistance offered by the Thai military officer to my mother and her traveling companion was probably not something out of the ordinary as he, himself, might have been an ethnic Khmer. After getting my mother settled in the house, I took Lyndal back out to send her off to her residence in Thailand. As we reached the main road, I teasingly told Lyndal that we almost get caught by my mother sleeping together last night. She smiled acknowledging my mischievous sense of humor. Just as she was about to get inside her car, Lyndal and I gave each other a hug and promised to keep in touch. After sending Lyndal off, I went to the market to buy some new sarongs and shirts for my mother as she had nothing but the clothes on her back. I asked my mother to discard her old rag-tag clothes which she reluctantly let go because they were the clothes that enabled her to disguise herself and make the perilous journey of about one hundred miles or so across Thailand safely. I sent a letter to Heang immediately informing him of our reunion. Like us, Heang was quite relieved to hear the good news of our reunion. He told us that things were looking good for us as the U.S. Government had allowed refugees who lived in camps along the Thai-Cambodian border to resettle in the United States. Thus, after being reunited for a second time during our sojourn in the various refugee camps along the Thai-Cambodian border, we were sort of hopeful that our lives would not turn toward another stressful situation. (To be continued)