A Cambodian Refugee's Story

by Sou

My name is Sou. I was born between 1950 and 1951, in Cambodia. My family was in the rice milling business. We lived in the second largest city of Cambodia: Battambang City.

In 1975, when the Khmer Rouge took power, we were forced from our home to live in the countryside. We lived in a hut, with little food to eat. I asked to be a seamstress in our commune, but sometimes I was required to farm. Since there were no shoes issued by the Khmer Rouge, my feet were bloodied by the ground. One day, the Khmer Rouge distributed Cambodian deserts in coconut shells because there were no plates. We were to receive four deserts per person, contained in each shell. My parents lived elsewhere and were not entitled to these deserts. I decided to give my portion to them, since I was a filial daughter and knew that they were very hungry. My mouth watered as I watched them feast, but I was very happy.

When the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in 1979, my family fled to Thailand. On the way there, we were robbed four times. They left us with nothing but the clothes on our backs. We slept on the ground and were without food for a month, before the Red Cross came to our rescue. We were severely emaciated, and it was but for the grace of God that help arrived in the nick of time. We had reached the Thai-Cambodian border but were lost. The Red Cross sent us to a refugee camp for 11 months. We were sponsored by the Wundered Family of Mesa, Arizona. God bless them.

Because my brother had come to Northern Virginia seven months before us (he was sponsored separately), my family and I decided to move from Arizona to Virginia, to be reunited with him. By then, it was 1981 and I resolved to get my driver's license immediately. I found a driving school that was referred to me by a friend. I paid $275 and an instructor taught me three lessons. In a turn of bad luck, the school went bankrupt shortly after that third lesson. Needless to say, I still didn't know how to drive by then, and had friends teach me to drive until I got my license in 1982.

Penniless and unable to speak English, I had to work days and study nights. The work was menial; I had to clean offices and bathrooms. In 1986, I was proud to become a citizen of the United States of America, my new home. My English was still poor, and I continued to study it slowly and methodically, and got my General Education Degree (GED) from Thomas Edison High School in 1989. That same year, my mom passed away from liver cancer. It was a very hard moment in my life, since she had made it out of Cambodia with only to die ten years later in America.

After receiving my GED, I studied basic electrical wiring as well as heating, air conditioning, and refrigeration. I finished these studies in 1991. At that time, I was employed by the Charles E. Smith corporation as a helper in building maintenance, but was laid-off after only three months. I then decided to undertake studies in cosmetology and hairdressing, which took another year. Since June 1993, I have been an employee of the Hair Cuttery corporation. I have had to work seven days a week in that time, to support myself at a comfortable level. In these years, I became more fluent in English, because of my job, and for that, indeed for everything that America has given me, but most of all for the opportunity to make something of myself, I am deeply grateful.

By the time of my father's passing on September 25, 1998, from old age, I had become assimilated, to the extent possible, into American society.