When I first met Rothana, we had just moved to town, and I was thrilled to have a friend with whom I could speak some Thai (I served a mission in Thailand for 18 months, and I rarely have the chance to use my language skills). Over the years, our friendship has deepened beyond giggling over shared pleasantries in another language. She’s shared bits of her story with me, and with so many refugees throughout the world right now, I felt that we could all benefit from a little insight into what it feels like to leave everything behind, just hoping to find a better life.
Former Executive Director and Co-founder of M3C (Minnesota Cambodian Communities Council), Rothana has been a tireless community advocate for the advancement and preservation of rich Khmer traditions through education, mentoring, and community development programs. Rothana’s varied experiences include co-founding the first Khmer Classical Dance Group in Minnesota, managing Red Rose Productions events, and formerly serving on the board of the Asian Pacific Cultural Center. Click here to watch an interview of Rothana for the Immigration History Research Center.
Here is Rothana’s personal story of her years as a refugee:
In 1975, the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia and committed genocide, trying to eliminate certain races and types of people (such as artists and intellectuals). They separated all Cambodians into three groups: men, women, and children. At only 6 years old, they put me to work in the rice fields every day with only rice soup to eat.
If someone was sick, they stayed home alone, with no parents or doctor to take care of them. If officials found out that someone was faking their illness, he or she would disappear. The place we lived was like a hallway. It had only a roof and an exit, no window. We all slept together in one room on the ground. The only shower we took was standing in the rain. If there was no rain, we had no shower.
I lost my beautiful sister, Jomreun, to starvation. Her stomach was so big, but her arms and legs were so little–just skin and bone. My older brother and his friends died by stepping on a landmine. My siblings’ deaths were common ones during the reign of the Khmer Rouge.
After about six months, my mom became very sick. My dad wrote a letter to the commander for permission for all her children to come home to see her. Miraculously, the commander gave permission, and we came home. Just a couple days later, the war started again.
This time the fighting was in our own village. Bullets were shooting everywhere. It sounded like popcorn was popping. My dad told us to hide in the pond. I didn’t want to go because I was scared. While we were in the pond, Dad told us not to move. Soon, we felt a snake moving around us. I was terrified, but we still didn’t move. After a few minutes, the bombing and shooting was over, and we all got out of the pond and ran again. Thankfully, my mother’s health had improved enough that she was able to run with us.
With a lot of starvation and pain from shrapnel wounds, we just kept moving. We didn’t know where to go; we just followed everybody else. Everyplace my mom went, she collected all kinds of seeds like long beans, cucumbers, and corn. Eventually, the war ended. Everybody decided to take a break from running and rest. We built our own camp with grass and tree leaves for a temporary home in Sras Keo. My mom planted some of the seeds she had collected, and we were able to grow food.
We stayed in that temporary camp in Cambodia for about nine months. One day, people in our group told us quietly, “We are moving tomorrow. The truck will pick us up and bring us to a safe place.”
Just like that, we left another home behind and moved to a different refugee camp for three years, and then another camp for a year, before arriving at the Khao I Dang refugee camp in Thailand. The Khao I Dang camp was surrounded with a barbed wire fence. No one could go in or out of the camp. There was a lot of armed robbery between refugees, and we heard gunshots every night. At 8pm each day, the electricity was shut off, so everybody had to be in their homes by 7pm. My dad dug a hole in the ground under his bed that was big enough for our whole family to hide in case of emergency. Thankfully, we never needed to use it.
For the latrine, a long, very deep hole was dug and surrounded with grass walls, then divided into six or seven rooms. It was located about half a block from my house. Sadly, our pregnant neighbor went to the bathroom one day. Not realizing she was in labor, her baby dropped into the deep toilet and was unable to be rescued. I felt so sad for both the mom and the baby.
Despite the dark aspects of the refugee camps, they offered some good things too. That was where I learned how to read and write Khmer [Cambodian]. I also learned classical dancing. And most importantly, my family was together, and we had food and water.
It was also there that I learned the impact a small act of kindness can have. One night, I remember sleeping on the ground without a pillow or blanket. Suddenly, I felt someone lift me up and put me down in a safer place. That person then disappeared and I never saw him again, but the memory of his kindness never left me. I learned from that moment that doing good does not have to be huge. We should serve as much as we can, and all it takes is one small act of kindness to make a difference in someone’s life.
To make a long story short, my family passed the immigration test, and after almost ten years in the various refugee camps, we came to the United States in 1985. We got off the plane and were met by our sponsors, a man named Bob and his wife. Bob’s wife was counting us, and we were missing one person. So we went back on the plane, and our brother, Tha, was still sleeping there! We were so grateful.
Bob and his wife had two missionaries with them, one of whom was Thai and could translate for us. Little did I know then that, four years later, I would marry that Thai missionary!
When we got to our new home, we quickly had to adjust to life in America. We didn’t know how to use the bathroom, shower, or oven. On our first 4th of July here, my mom heard the fireworks, thought they were guns, and started yelling to us, “Go to the basement! Go to the basement!”
Even our medicine was different. In my culture when we are sick, we use a coin to scratch our body to get rid of pain and fever. It is called កោសខ្យល. One day I had a fever and headache, so I pinched my neck from left to right. The next day I went to school, and people were staring at the red lines I had left on my neck. I think they thought I had a lot of hickeys!
We have more than 10,000 Cambodians in Minnesota. Most, like my family, came as refugees in the mid-1980s as we fled the Khmer Rouge. Two years ago, I helped found the Minnesota Cambodian Communities Council (M3C) to have a place for Cambodians to call home so that we could meet, learn and help each other.
The Khmer Rouge taught us how to hate, how to steal. And most of us have a lot of mental issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder. Many truly don’t know the social rules of living in US, such as different discipline methods for children. And some simply were never taught between right and wrong , after having grown up surrounded by war, with no adults to teach them.
During the Cambodian genocide, the Khmer Rouge tortured and killed 90% of educated people. As a result, most of the parents who survived were unskilled workers. They work two or three jobs in the US to support their family. Most of the time, kids and grandparents are left alone. This is where my heart is. M3C provides a place for people to meet other Cambodians, make friends, and learn new skills.
The kids especially need our help. M3C was the first Khmer group to collaborate with the Office of Educational Equality in a local school district to teach 23 Cambodian students how to read and write Khmer, and how to perform a bamboo stick dance and a blessing dance. We also work with the Ordway Theatre on their Movements event to celebrate the artistic expressions of a variety of Asian and Pacific Islander American groups.
One of the highlights of my life has been working with the community these past two years to develop M3C. In a way, I feel that by supporting the Cambodian community here, especially the children, I am thanking that man who watched over a sleeping little girl almost forty years ago. Sometimes, it’s the little acts of kindness that change someone’s life.