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January 27, 2003

Fleeing terror, finding freedom

By Joe Keo

Both my parents are native Cambodians, born into struggling, impoverished families. As children of poor farmers, their family’s main sources of income were harvesting rice for others or making and selling their own food.

They lived on farms and raised cattle, pigs, and chickens. When times were rough they had to sell their livestock, which helped them in the short term, but hurt them in the long run.

They had a tough time walking through the markets, trying to sell homemade bread, sandwiches and homegrown fruits and vegetables because not everyone trusted the quality of the food and sometimes customers got sick from the poorly handled refreshments.

Life was hard, but things got even worse with the rise of the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge was a Communist regime interested in “purifying” Cambodia and ridding it of foreign influence.

My parents are Cambodian, but they know and speak Thai as well – and the Khmer Rouge killed anyone who spoke any other than their native Khmer (the Cambodian language).

Soldiers raided villages and killed countless innocent people. My grandparents couldn’t stay where they were – they were terrified they’d become victims of the genocidal Khmer Rouge – so their only choice was to take their children and flee to the border with Thailand.

Hundreds of thousands of people who couldn’t get away were massacred.

At the border, the Thai government set up temporary camps where they held Cambodian refugees. Then teenagers, my parents learned more Thai in the camps.

Life in the camps was as difficult as it was back in Cambodia. Thai soldiers sometimes beat the refugees and put them in servitude.

My mom and dad, who hadn’t yet met, did what they could to survive. They were sick of poverty and they wanted to be free to be who they are and do what they want to do.

My folks wanted a less chaotic life and thought they might find it in America, a place they saw as a land of opportunities.

In the States, sponsorship programs for Cambodian refugees were on the rise, with Americans, usually church groups, bringing individuals and families here.

In my family, not everyone immigrated together – everyone came over at different times. When one got settled in America, he or she would help bring other family members over.

My dad, my uncle Out Keo and their sister, my aunt Mean Yout, came here together in 1980, leaving their parents, three brothers and a sister behind in Cambodia. The rest of my dad’s side never had the opportunity to come over.

My mother was sponsored a few years later by her aunt, who lived in Providence, R.I.  My maternal grandparents and all of my mom’s siblings were able to escape the civil conflicts of Cambodia.

For both my parents and many Cambodian-Americans, the route of immigration began in the Thai camps and stopped in the Philippines before reaching America.

Here, as they struggled to understand the culture, they found each other, married, and had me. A couple years later, my sister Jeania came along.

Now we are settled in the suburbs of Bristol, living a good life. I’m a sophomore, attending Bristol Eastern High School, and doing well. My parents work normal factory jobs and provide for us.

I’m grateful to my mom and dad. They’ve been through hell and back.

They worked hard to get to the blue-collar life of Bristol from the slums of poverty-stricken Cambodia.

I’m living the life they never had – an American life, with one foot still set in my Cambodian culture.

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