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Refugee's lament of a place to call home

Refugee's lament of a place to call home

The Editor,

There has been much misunderstanding between local and overseas Khmer for a long

time. This has caused a great deal of friction and confusion that has led to conflict,

resentment and jealousy.

I hope this letter helps set things straight, even if just a little.

To fully understand this problem, we must look at the issues facing overseas Khmer

and what are the perceptions held by local Khmer. First lets explore what local Khmer


The United States is the Number One nation in the world. Living in the US is like

being in "heaven"; money grows on trees and is there for all; one doesn't

have to work because Uncle Sam provides; everyone has many material goods. There

are no worries, poverty, crime. There is only freedom.

Sounds like a dream world? You bet. These are some of the perceptions I hear from

many local Khmer (including my own relatives) about life in the US for all people,

including Khmer-Americans. Locals often see a few overseas Khmer flash their large

US dollar bills and brag about their extravagant lives in America. Some of this might

be true, but it is far from reality for most Khmer-Americans. What is the reality?

Most Americans would like to think that the US is the number one country on this

planet. It is not. There is no "heaven" on planet earth, and certainly

not on US soil.

Money does not grow on trees. Most everyone still has to work for a living. The minimum

wage is now $4.25 an hour, and very few are able to survive and raise a family on

this. Uncle Sam is still alive but he is just about broke and heavily in debt. The

Social Security is on its way into space as there is very little money left in the


Not everyone has an expensive house packed with furniture, with cars, televisions,

and other material goods. There are more than a million Americans who are hungry,

homeless and penniless.

Life in the US is not as grand as local Khmer believe. There are problems. It's just

on much, much bigger scale than in Cambodia.

Compared with Cambodia, the crime rate is much higher in the US. There are over two

million hard core criminals being locked up at the cost of between $15,000 to $20,000

per convict, annually. Other parole criminals (between three to four millions more)

are on the street simply because there are not enough prisons to hold them in. That's

about one-half of Cambodia's total population!

Yes, the freedom is here, but many take it for granted or abuse their privileges.

The late former President Richard Nixon, whose policies were partly responsible for

Cambodia's problems, is a classic example. He is rewarded for his abuse of power

by having his picture on a US stamp and a library in his honor.

Let's get the facts straight about Khmer-Americans such as myself.

Who are these people?

Most of us came to America as refugees following bitter history of the 1970-75 civil

war, the Khmer Rouge genocide, and foreign intervention. We are among the most recent

immigrants to arrive on American soil.

These Cambodians are traumatized people whose pride and dignity have been taken away

over two decades. Their lives were ruined and their families - the center of daily

life - destroyed. No-one escaped from events that no human should ever have to endure.

Many became homeless and spent years in refugee camps where conditions were not even

suitable for animals.

The lucky ones came to America and other countries to begin a new life in a strange

culture, a choice they neither wanted nor needed. Most do not regret that they emigrated,

but they are very sorry that they had to make that choice in the first place. It

is a choice that cannot be reversed. They must move on forward with their new lives

in their new homes.

When Cambodian refugees first arrived in America, most only had the clothes on their

backs and an uncertain future. Many suffered from "Post Traumatic Stress,"

a disorder only recently recognized to have occurred among Cambodian immigrants.

For most of these simple rural folk, America is a frightful urban jungle. They must

relearn just about everything to survive. Things such as the culture, custom, language,

food, extreme climate, and prejudice.

Opportunities are limited. Many survive on meager handouts of welfare. Others who

are young or wise enough manage to learn the language and new skills and are able

to adapt to their new environment much better than the rest. However, they are the

exceptions. For every success, there are many more failures.

Some say living in their new country is like night and day. It was and still is a

very difficult adaptation, especially for older immigrants longing to return to their

old country. They realize it is not possible to go back. No one can really go back,

at least not to the same place that he or she remembered. Each and everyone can only

look forward and remember their past. It is a pitiful feeling for the "first

generation" Khmer-Americans.

The Khmer strength is the family. When it fails, everything goes down the drain.

Families break apart and there are divorces, something unspeakable in Khmer culture.

Many are unable to go on forward with their new lives. They live below the poverty

line and on welfare. Alcoholism, and child and spousal abuse are common problems.

Communities become infested with gangs, and trouble with the law is common. It has

become a vicious cycle that can be, in some way, blamed on their past traumas and

new ones found in America.

Along with that sour note of failure, however, there are hopes and successes that

must be celebrated.

Many Khmer immigrants are able to piece their lives back together, despite all the

problems. They manage to use every available opportunity. Here are just a few examples:

  1. Community organizations are set up by the refugees themselves to assist and support

    newly arrived refugees. People work hard to improve their fledgling communities throughout

    the US.

  2. Community centers, temples, churches, and other places for social gatherings,

    especially for the elders who have been plagued with isolation and loneliness, are


  3. Religious and cultural events with traditional music, classical dance, song,

    food, and arts are organized.

  4. Student organizations and clubs at all levels help promote higher education and

    to bring youth closer as an ethnic group. More and more Cambodians finish high school

    and continue on to college and university. A few mange to complete post graduate

    degrees in highly technical fields.

  5. Many become naturalized citizens, tax payers, and fully integrated into society.

    Many are affluent. They find specialized employment and establish businesses. Cambodia's

    loss is America's gain.

  6. Some have returned home, many to help with the country's reconstruction.

Those of us who were fortunate enough to go to a "third" country often

found a place more inhospitable than what we are used to - socially, culturally,

economically and environmentally. What other choice do we have? We can't stay in

a "second" country because we are neither wanted nor needed. A "third"

country, no matter how strange or foreign, offered a ray of hope. We went blindly

into a frightful unknown.

I too came to a "third" country. It was not by choice or design, but simply

fate. I (and I'm sure many others) am not sorry that I came to a "second, then

third" country. I am, however, very, very sorry that I had to come in the first

place. I regret that I was forced to leave my beloved birth country, and relearn

and rethink everything in order to adapt to my new home, my new country. It meant

no turning back. I wish that I could go back home again, but it is not possible.

I have to go forward and adapt to my new environment as best I possibly can.

Many Americans consider people such as myself as foreigners, aliens, minorities -

NOT as an American. "Go back to where you come from, you yellow!" They

often yell this at me. I am sometimes harassed or beaten by "Americans"

simply because I am different. The US is home, but it is not the permanent home as

I would like it to be. It is more a halfway home, at least that is what some "Americans"

make people like me feel. I am just an unwelcome and unwanted guest. People like

me don't belong here, not really. We are just newcomers.

Where do I belong to then? Do I belong to Cambodia? From what I have seen and heard,

local Khmer don't consider me a Khmer anymore. They call people like me "aliens"

who need permission to enter and stay in Cambodia. I now have as much rights as an

alien in a land from which I have never left in my heart. It is more painful than

one can imagine. Where do people like myself belong now? I am still seeking for the

answer to this question. Please let me know if anyone has a good answer out there.

Sad to say, a few local Khmer often say people like me are traitors. They say we

ran away from Cambodia when we should have been protecting her from her enemies.

They curse us for bailing out when times were rough, only to return when the situation

improved to "steal" what they had sacrificed to protect.

It is always painful for me to hear such accusations. Little do they realize the

circumstances beyond one person's control. They did not really understand what I

had to go through to escape with my life. They do not comprehend the need for me

to run. I would have perished like the rest of my family, friends, neighbors, and

thousands or perhaps millions other Khmers if I had stayed. It was not by choice

but by destiny, if one believes in such a thing.

For the information of local Khmer in Cambodia, life in the US and other places is

only as grand as one's hard work and luck. It is not much different from Cambodia,

only bigger, faster, and more complex. If you're equipped for such a life style and

adaptable, then you are all set.

For most overseas Khmers, life here is too fast to adapt to. Many got left behind

and fell in the many cracks of the Western society where sunlight almost never reaches.

As far as I am concerned, Cambodia is still one of the best places in the world despite

all her problems. If Cambodia could improve her social, political, and economic situation

slightly, she would be the Number One country to raise my family; like my parents

and their parents before that.

I am still hopeful.

- Ronnie Yimsut, Oregon, USA. A native son of Cambodia.


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