I waited to interview Oeum for months and I waited so patiently because I knew her story was a melange of tradegy, survival, reassurance and inspiration. Cambodian culture is quite unknown to me so I was naturally drawn to learn more.
We both agreed we would share a meal of Ethiopian food for our interview for one reason: the opportunity to eat with our hands.
There is a sense of fellowship and connection when two people share a meal and eat with the hands. Silverware was introduced thousands of year ago by the elite and over the centuries found its way into everyday table etiquette in the “western” world. It is now the socially accepted way to eat. Its clear eating with the hands, for an outsider of this custom, defies all proper mannerisms and overlooks common suspicions of cleanliness. We do not do this in the United States for two reasons:
1. Many believe touching the food contaminates it.
2. Many consider it to be “barbaric” and “impolite”.
Yet “barbaric” is why it appeals to me. When two people share a meal from the same plate and forgo the silverware there is a very raw connection. A fellowship, a kinship, an almost tribal interaction between them. When etiquette and the sense of being proper is set aside, its hard to unconsciously judge the mannerisms of the person you are eating with because both of your hands are dripping with juiciness from the meat and have food particles pasted to them. Classy.
Oeum is the first person I have met who survived the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia’s communist regime in power from 1975-1979. Their ultimate objective was a radical social reform process aimed at creating a purely agrarian-based Communist society. Agrarianism is a philosophy that values a rural society over an urban society and when combined with socialism generally welds farming and a primitive, rural way of life with socialist economic policies. In terms of the Khmer Rouge, such beliefs were pushed to the extreme. After taking power in 1975, they renamed the country Democratic Kampuchea and shipped all urban inhabitants away to forced labor camps where even the practice of modern medicine was forbidden. Any member of society believed to be educated were accused of conspiracy on unfounded charges and were murdered.
“They did not like educated people at all. I remember my mother telling me that she burned all of our documents because she did not want them to know my family was educated” Oeum explained when I asked her about the conditions in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge.
About 2 million Cambodians are estimated to have died by murder, torture, starvation and easily preventable diseases. There was also a strong desire to eliminate anyone suspected of involvement in “free-market activities”. Suspected capitalists encompassed professionals and almost everyone with an education, many urban dwellers, and people with connections to foreign governments.
As a result of the societal devastation, thousands of Cambodians in this time period fled the country to neighboring Thailand to escape the clutches of the Khmer Rouge and ended up in refugee camps. Many have since returned to Cambodia in recent years.
As we scooped up the dripping food with our hands, Oeum described growing up in the Khao I Dang refugee camp in Thailand. She explained the horror of the timely raids by the Thai military and the young women that were taken from their families. “My mother was always afraid they would take my sister since she was about 15 years old at the time”.
Through her story I am seeing the experience of life as a refugee for a child, since Oeum spent her childhood living in the camps before arriving in the United States. It is a sad existence- one of constant hunger, scarcity and suffering. “I think the Thai government is overwhelmed with the amount of refugees in the country. Over the last one hundred years they have streamed in from all the neighboring countries and there are so many camps that they can’t feed everyone in each camp. When my family was there we were always hungry. Food was really scarce unless an aid organization brought it in to us”.
“50 Women” will include the stories of 3 women from 3 different neighboring Southeast Asian countries who were in refugee camps in Thailand and each because of the political and military issues in her native country. There is Va, a Hmong woman from Laos who lived in Ban Vinai after fleeing the Vietnam War. Naw Wa May Paw, an ethnic Karen women currently residing in the Umpiem Mai camp unable to return to Burma due to the discrimination of the Karen people by Burma’s military government. Finally Oeum, who’s family fled the Khmer Rouge forcing her to grow up in the Khao I Dang camp. Although these three stories cannot speak for every woman in Southeast Asia, I believe they speak for the thousands of women still trapped in the Thailand camps who survived similar military governments, ethnic conflicts and wield a similar daily existence with the same struggles.
I know many people do not believe that helping refugees is a worthwhile investment, but I have personally seen the amount of change one person having survived so much horror is capable of making and it’s quite a powerful phenomenon to witness. Oeum has made extensive efforts as a social worker in terms of community outreach since arriving in the United States for a new life years ago. As she narrated this story, I realize in many instances, she was the glue holding her family together as they arrived in the United States. She was the translator, the counselor, the social worker, the sister and the daughter.
Oeum still returns to Cambodia frequently. On a previous trip, she returned to the village where she was born and for the first time, met long lost family members. On another trip, she took a group of 8 school-aged kids who also had refugee families from Southeast Asia. The group backpacked to the villages of each child’s family.
“Cambodia will always be my home in a sense. I feel that it was taken from me as a child, but now I have it back and being able to return there makes me connect to it more”.
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