There were many ways to die during the brutal days of the Khmer Rouge’s reign in Cambodia: starvation, disease, torture, poisoning, execution, landmines …
Kim Chhay saw all of them during her time in a concentration camp in Pol Pot’s infamous genocidal Killing Fields. Chhay, now a multicultural diversity counselor at Stark State College, was 5 years old in 1975 when her family was stripped of its home and belongings and each other and taken to concentration camps.
Her tiny face peers out from a grainy black and white photo taken near the war’s end. She, her mother and three siblings survived. Four older siblings were executed, two younger ones starved to death. Her father, a doctor, was kept alive for his medical knowledge until the regime’s collapse. Then, Chhay saw him tortured and executed as an example to other prisoners.
“I know it was him,” she told her mother, who like the rest of the family was using an alias. “I heard him call out your real name.”
“Normal life” in the camp, she said, meant eating what you could find, including snakes, lizards and snails in addition to the small allotment of runny porridge. It meant “no school, no religion, no family, no laughter,” Chhay said. It meant seeing children her age “dying left and right,” walking through mass graves of bodies and skeletons thinking it was “just the way it was,” working in the rice fields, picking up bundles “until you fell over,” nighttime indoctrination to eradicate independent thinking because “to disagree means you’ll be gone the next day.”
When political chaos erupted again in 1979, Chhay and her remaining siblings and mother were miraculously reunited and, under the cover of the night’s blackness in a jungle loaded with landmines, found their way to the Thailand border “We made it,” she said, “but barely.”
Eventually, sponsored by relatives, the remaining family members arrived in the United States. Ending up in Minnesota so her mother could be treated at the Mayo Clinic, “normal life” became an adolescence of working hard in school, helping raise her siblings, and rolling up her sleeves at the small restaurant her mother opened to make a living.
“She told us, ‘Don’t live the way I live; learn as much as you can. This is your home, make the best of it and go as far as you can,’” Chhay said. “She didn’t have to say much after that.” Chhay and her siblings developed a thirst for learning, she said, an ethic she and her husband, an engineer, hope to pass on to their son. She’ll explain to him, she said, the physical and mental scars she carries from her years in the concentration camp, but also encourage him to follow the tradition family loyalty, of grabbing hold of the American dream, of turning the negative to a positive.
“I tell him, ‘Don’t forget who you are, but learn all you can and appreciate the good.’ What happened in my country is still happening all over the world. I share my story so we can all recognize the people we interact with – our students, coworkers, neighbors, community – have stories we need to know. It’s good for us to share, to be made aware of our diverse backgrounds. My message is this: If you can help your community, do so.”
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