My mother at the refugee camp
My mother’s given name is Samnang, it means lucky. She thought herself unlucky so when she came to America, she shortened it to Nang, which has no meaning.
When she was very young, her father died, leaving behind a sick, frail mother of 4 children: Sinath, Vannath, Samnang, and Vanny. Her aunt took pity and offered to care for her and her youngest brother, sending them to school while the two elders stayed behind to find work on the farm and support the mother. When she was about 12 years old, her mother remarried and came to take her home. She left school, worked on the farm, and barely knew her own mother.
Then famine occurred. Armies came in, she ran looking for food, helping the soldier, whatever she could to get some food for her family.
The last time she ever saw her mother, my grandmother, was at the age of 14.
She was recruited by Khmer Rouge, they promised food and change to life. She only wanted food and to survive, with little knowledge of what they meant. After all, she wasn’t educated. She met my father and was forced to get married by the Rouge’s leader.
When the regime fell, she ran with the Khmer Rouge. With only some pots and plates and a tarp on her back, she and the rest of the regime walked, ran away from bombs, and searched for food.
“We would hide in the jungle and then the bombs would come. Boom, boom! And we ran. We ran for our lives from the Vietnamese soldiers, we ran when we heard there was food, we ran because we didn’t know what else to do.”
The Rouge has some food they rationed but it was never enough. They set up camps with tarp and leaves, barely a tent.
“When I see my friends say they go camping, I think ‘Crazy! No way!’ I did that for a long time. It’s no fun.”
A year or two passed, she had lost track of time in the jungle. She said she was so skinny, it looked like skin on bones, like starving children in Africa. She ate unbelievable things she would never eat again.
One day, they came to the border of Thailand. The soldiers pointed guns at them and told them to stay away and she spited them for their arrogance and non-empathy. They camped around for awhile before a bus came with news that they would take the poor refugees to a nice, safe haven. My father, being able to speak Thai, had been doing some work on the Thai border. He told my mother, they mustn’t go for a better bus will come, as he was informed by the Thai. They hid out in the jungle after the first bus left.
Soon, another bus came, it plowed through the jungle leading the few stragglers behind to a refuge camp inside the Thai border. The first camp, my father was given work at a local clinic. This gave them enough money to have walls and a roof over their shelter. Srah Keow I, it was where my brother was born. 1981. Life is not easy as robbers and thieves littered the campsite.
The camp was overtaken by refugees and supplies grew low so my parents moved again. This time to Khao I Dang. I was born in 1983. This was a poor time. Little work, little money. The camp is now an empty land by the jungle if you try to google map it. My mother was sick and weak. I was sick and weak, the doctors didn’t think I would survive had I not come to America.
My mother had a childhood friend who was able to escape to Boston, America and wanted to sponsor her but at the time, only relatives were allowed to do that. It isn’t really the idea of sponsor where one family paid for another. They just needed to vouch family ties and we could come to the States. Not too far from Boston, a town, crippling from unemployment and decline, lived my father’s distant cousins. The US government was offering money to cities who would accept refugees. And Lowell, Massachusetts took that money if they could fill a criteria.
In 1985, our family was sponsored.
This was my first passport photo coming to America