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The Cambodian Nightmare and the American Dream

Nil Samorn can't go home again. He's an American now, for better and worse.


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"I don't know why they didn't kill me," says Nil Samorn. In 1975, he and a number of other low-ranking officers in the Cambodian army were trucked by armed Khmer Rouge guerrillas to a fortified temple in the jungle of northwest Cambodia. While others around him were brutally executed, he waited.

Samorn had quit school to enlist in the army in 1970, shortly after Prince Sihanouk, who had ruled Cambodia since the French put him in power in 1941, was overthrown by the U.S.-backed Lon Nol. The right-wing general soon widened the growing civil war between the government troops and the communist Khmer Rouge, who had quickly gained Sihanouk as their nominal head. Lon Nol doubled the number of the republic's troops by drafting young men and boys, who were driven into battle knowing little more than where the triggers on their rifles were. Their officers were often inept, and many pocketed U.S. funds intended for supplies. More than a million people, in a country of only seven million, died in this war before the Khmer Rouge won in 1975.

Samorn had enlisted because he hoped to be--and was--assigned to the unit in which his father was a lieutenant. "He felt like he could protect me, and I felt like I could be protected by him," Samorn says. He eventually became an officer in the propaganda branch, which was so disorganized that the soldiers often invented work for themselves. Samorn had always liked theater, dance, and music, so he studied and promoted Cambodian culture. When his unit was finally forced to surrender, its senior officers made a list for the Khmer Rouge of all those under their command. "The high-rank officers were under pressure. They didn't know that something terrible would happen," says Samorn. "They thought that they were usable, and they thought that the Khmer Rouge new government would need them to work." The last time he saw him, his father was being driven away in a truck by the Khmer Rouge.

Samorn and thousands of other soldiers were first marched at gunpoint to a large field. There they waited, building shelters and foraging for food, while the Khmer Rouge decided what to do with them. Three months later Samorn was trucked to the temple prison, where he was told he would have to wait until higher-ups gave the order to send him to a reeducation camp. For several days he waited. One night his uncle stole into the temple. "When he first heard that I was there, he didn't even want to come see me," says Samorn. "He just felt-- He was afraid. He and I were like twins. We used to sleep together in the same room, we went to school together, we did almost everything together. And many important things we never decided without each other. And then when I met him, he was very, very strange. He didn't smile. It was completely different from what I expected. I thought 'Oh, when we met the first time, we would be very, very happy because we were separated for a long time.' He just told me 'I don't know why you are here, but nobody can do anything now. Everybody, if they're put in this place, they will be killed the next day.' That just scared me more. I was just 21. He just warned me like that, and then he left." But the next day Samorn and some 20 other men who held the same military rank were released and given permission to search for their families. Samorn assumes the Khmer Rouge simply made a mistake, for many men of his rank were killed in other prisons.

Samorn found his uncle, who told him where his mother was working. Samorn then set out to find her. "The first time when I came to meet her, she didn't believe it. I came to meet her at dusk--in Cambodia, it's almost dark. Nobody in my family--my brothers, my sisters--they didn't believe that I was alive." He laughs softly. "And they thought that I was a ghost when I came." But Samorn knew that staying with his mother put her in danger and went back to where his uncle was working. His uncle managed to keep Samorn out of the way of the Khmer Rouge for a while, but soon the two of them, along with three friends from the temple prison who joined them, were assigned to one of the "mobile teams." They worked wherever they were told, digging irrigation ditches and building dikes, doing the heaviest work there was.

Most of the people of Cambodia--young and old--were forced to work all day every day in the rice fields. They were part of a state plan to modernize the country quickly, a project that was to be paid for through a huge increase in the production of rice--rice that the people were rarely allowed to eat, rice that was often shipped to China, the major supporter of the Khmer Rouge, to pay for weapons.

Anyone who has seen The Killing Fields has some idea of the sadistic brutality of the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot. But Haing Ngor, who played Dith Pran in the film, writes in his biography that he complained that director Roland Joffe wasn't making the Khmer Rouge look anywhere near as bad as they had been. Joffe told him that if he showed the Khmer Rouge the way they really were, no one would go to the film.

The Khmer Rouge were responsible for the deaths of an estimated two million Cambodians. They died of exhaustion, of exposure, of starvation, of disease. They were tortured, shot, disemboweled, and hacked to death with hoes. The ethnic minorities--the Vietnamese, the Muslim Cham, the Chinese--were some of the first to be killed or driven out of the country by the intensely nationalistic Khmer Rouge. The educated and those who had worked for the government were next. Soon no one was safe; the Khmer Rouge purged many of their own. Only a few people had managed to flee across the border to Thailand in the first few months after the Khmer Rouge took power. Those who remained have seen the unimaginable.

Samorn is now 34 and has lived in the United States for the past eight years. He has learned English, has a car and an apartment, recently opened a video store, and works to help those in his community who came after him--all of these outward signs that he is settling in. Yet the unfathomable cruelty of his years under the Khmer Rouge remains at the center of his life, wrapped by a continual longing for the things that were best about his homeland. Samorn is a quiet, gracious man, and he tells me his story--sometimes with great difficulty--because he believes it may help other families in his community. There are 5,000 Cambodian refugees now living in Chicago, most of whose lives continue to be shaped by what they have endured and lost.

As a member of a mobile team, Samorn saw the horrors repeated and varied. "Nobody knew how the system operated--you know, who made the decisions, and what came from where," he tells me. "But the local leader could make the decision to kill anybody he wanted. Some villages, even all the people. Some villages--thousands of people--and just several people would survive. Some villages, just old women survived."

Most of the others in Samorn's team had been students--which placed them in as much danger as Samorn's old military rank placed him; on a different team, he says, he probably would have been betrayed and killed. Nevertheless, he says, "I had to be stronger than the others. [The Khmer Rouge] suspected my background. They suspected, but they didn't kill me because I worked very hard."

After two years, Samorn heard rumors that he was to be killed. But he had managed to keep hidden his army compass and he had drawn a rough map of the area over which his team moved--30 to 40 miles from the Thai border. "Every day, every minute, I planned to escape to Thailand," he says. He and 23 others from his team, including one of his friends from the temple prison, escaped in April 1978. "I found out that if I stayed just another several days, I would have been killed--because they had traced me." For two days and nights they walked, without food or water. Six of them were shot and killed by a patrol; his friend collapsed, and Samorn was forced to go on without him. Later he found out that his two other friends from the temple, who had been assigned to another village, were killed after he escaped simply because they had been his friends.

A second group escaped after his. "They just heard a rumor that my group already was in Thailand with an American team, and we got very good pay, and we were treated well. That's why they escaped. Almost all of the men in my battalion and my village, they escaped--just followed my group. Almost all of them were killed. One group--106 people--102 were killed.

Samorn's uncle, who had been living in a different village, escaped in a third group; the one man who survived told Samorn that he had seen him captured by the Khmer Rouge. "He could have gone with me," Samorn says softly. "If there was enough time, I would have gone to get him. But there wasn't enough time. It happened, my escape, though I planned it for a long time--Whatever you want to do with the Khmer Rouge, you have to be very, very quick. You plan, and when you decide, you have to act right away." He sits silent for a long moment. "It's too bad," he says, his voice nearly breaking. "I just feel sorry for him and the others who lost-- He was really, really good."

The rumors that Samorn's group was living well were false. They had, in fact, been immediately arrested and imprisoned by Thai soldiers, who assumed they were Khmer Rouge. "They shaved my head, and they put chains on my ankles, and I had to work every day," Samorn says. "But it was better than in Cambodia." At that time the Khmer Rouge were fighting the Thai along the border, and Thai troops killed many Cambodian refugees. Samorn says his group was the first to be released alive from a Thai prison. Eleven of his friends headed back to Cambodia to fight with a newly formed resistance group; every one of them was killed in an ambush. Samorn was finally sent to a refugee camp inside Thailand, along with a number of other Cambodian refugees.

Back in Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge had stepped up their war against one of their country's historical enemies, Vietnam. The Vietnamese had long supported the Cambodian communist movement, but the Khmer Rouge leadership claimed that the Vietnamese wanted far too much control of their party and that they had always wanted to annex Cambodian territory. The Khmer Rouge distrusted anyone associated with the Vietnamese; Cambodian Communists who had hidden in Vietnam from Sihanouk's troops when they brutally decimated the party in the 1960s were some of the first to be purged. Hundreds of Vietnamese civilians and thousands of troops were slaughtered in Khmer Rouge raids across the border.

Their huge losses finally prompted the Vietnamese, along with many of the Cambodians who had fled to Vietnam, to invade Cambodia in late December 1978. The Vietnamese were far more numerous and far better armed than the Khmer Rouge, and they quickly advanced across the country, freeing the starving Cambodians as they went. In January 1979, they took Phnom Penh and then gradually drove the Khmer Rouge toward the Thai border. But by the end of the year, the Khmer Rouge had regrouped and were fighting across much of the country, burning rice fields and stored grain whenever they pulled out of an area. The Vietnamese did the same. The villagers, who had returned to their homes, were trapped in another war. People were starving, and there were no doctors for the sick and wounded. Then the Vietnamese installed a new government headed by Heng Samrin and Hun Sen, who had been high-level officials under Pol Pot until they escaped a purge by fleeing to Vietnam. Many Cambodians decided that a new, if lesser, horror had replaced the old, and fled to Thailand.

After the Vietnamese invaded, Samorn sent word of where he was to his mother. In June, she arrived with one of his sisters and one of his brothers. Only four of his immediate family had survived. "My next sister was killed," he tells me. "Her husband and her two children were killed. My brother next to her was killed. And the one next to the other was killed. And then the fifth and sixth ones are here. The very last one--the seventh one--he wasn't killed, but he was two years old at that time, and he died because of the malnutrition." He sits staring for a long while and finally says, "I think it's too much things to think about."

In 1979, Canada allowed Samorn's mother, brother, and sister to resettle in Montreal. Soon after, Samorn was accepted by the U.S. For most of his first year in this country, he went to school to learn English, an extraordinarily difficult language for Cambodians. English has many sounds for which there are no equivalents in Cambodian. Also, in English the past tense is formed by changing verb tenses; in Cambodian, qualifying words are added to verbs that are always present tense.

In 1981, Samorn took a job as a bilingual caseworker for the Jewish Family and Community Services resettlement program, one of the federally funded programs in Illinois that sponsor refugees, enroll them in schools, offer them counseling, help them find housing and work, and arrange for their medical care. In the years he worked there, he came to know most of the Cambodians in Chicago, and many of them well.

Last January, the funding for his position ran out. There were no similar jobs available, so he decided to go into business for himself. He and a friend opened a video store at 2658 W. Lawrence. "I like to work in social work," he says one night, sitting on the floor of his store. "I like to talk with people, help people. That's what my style, aptitude is. I worked for Jewish Family Services for almost seven years, and I went to school. And I just feel upset with refugee business, with social-service business, because of the funding cuts."

For a while he had taken college courses at night, but his low salary and some unusual expenses as a caseworker forced him to drop them. "The relationship between the bilingual worker and the clients is different from the American workers and the clients. Sometimes when I go with my clients, I have to pay for them for lunch, for dinner, for the drinks, their cigarettes, and many things. And I don't think they understand [that] very much, the administrators." Trudi Langendorf, who worked for years with Samorn at Jewish Family Services, is dismayed that Samorn was forced to quit his job. "There aren't many Cambodians who are as committed to helping everybody, no matter what their background was or how much education they had," she says. "Samorn worked day and night and was always honest, fair, and compassionate."

Samorn spends most of his day in the store. "This business," he says, "I just hope it can help me financially. I hope it's going to happen in one year or so, so that I will be able to go back to school. I miss school, and I feel sorry for the interruption, but I don't know what to do." Still, he seems to want to prove to himself that he can do something well besides social work, though he does say he's not a businessman. "I don't like business very much. I even never read newspaper business section. Never, never. First thing when I get the Tribune, I just throw away the business section." He starts laughing. "I don't know what is interesting in that section."

Some of the Cambodians who know him seem surprised at his decision to go into business. One afternoon, a neighbor teased him about his plans. Later I asked him what she had said. He laughed. "She thought that I might rent a movie to people, and then people will not pay me, and then they will not return the film, and that I will just do nothing. And then just go out of business."

He had teased back. An American friend explained something to the neighbor in English, assuming that Samorn would translate. Instead, Samorn only asked a short question in Cambodian. The neighbor looked confused and then started laughing. "I ask her if she understands," he said, laughing hard. "I was just teasing her. She knows how I am. The people here know me very well. They know I am funny."

Most of the Cambodian refugees who now live in Chicago spent years in Thailand's disheartening refugee camps. When they were finally accepted by the United States, they were put on a plane and set down in frantic, urban America. Difficulties and conflicts were inevitable and often predictable. For one thing, most of the refugees came with little money and few possessions. For another, most of them had no established community in Chicago to welcome and support them when they arrived. In addition, American policies require that refugees be pushed into jobs as quickly as possible. But most of the older refugees were rice farmers or housewives who had lived subsistence lives and had received little education. Very few spoke much English. As a result, many adults have had to take low-paying, low-skilled jobs that don't require them to talk much and that pay badly. Many of those who were highly trained--doctors, teachers--found they could not get jobs in their professions.

Of course, the young have learned English much faster than their parents and find it easier to move among Americans. Their parents and grandparents must often depend on them to translate and to go with them when they go out, and that dependency is hard on each generation. "It takes its toll on the kids," says Bill Dolnick, who worked with refugees for more than eight years. "The kids can't necessarily be kids. The roles are reversed. It's a big problem--it really winds up being very hard on the kids with the parents depending on them. And it's hard on the parents. It's demeaning to be dependent on your children, particularly in a culture where age is a sign of acquired wisdom and respect."

There were other obvious difficulties. The new arrivals had to endure our bitter winters, remember to lock doors, and find edible food. "I can't eat American food for three days," says Samorn. "Not at all. It's good food, and it is inspected well. I mean, compared to Cambodia. Cambodian kids like it a lot. They like hamburger, milk, apple, salad. They got that from school." He starts laughing. "And for me, it's no. No, I cannot have it for three days--you know, if they just give me Whoppers, or Big Macs, or salad, or any kind of sandwich."

But there are also other subtle social and psychological problems that persist even after refugees have been here for years. "Cambodia was a dictatorship, and here it's democratic rule," says Samorn. "But social freedom, I think, in Cambodia is much better. You can, you know, cut the tree, and build a canoe, and then push it in the river, and then go around. But you cannot do it here. Some people might look at it a different way. They say 'Well, you were in the refugee camp, and before you were in the refugee camp you were in an undeveloped country--you didn't have a happy life like you got here now.' Some people might judge that way, but I think it's not completely right.

"Here people talk about adjustment. When they mean for people that they adjust well here, I don't know how much they mean or what it means for them. But in broader terms, I think it's difficult for people to adjust. Even for myself. I still feel sorry for many things in Cambodia. Maybe they just mean people have a job, have a car, and go shopping, know how to go to the bank, know the resort place. I think they might think, 'Well, that's enough. That's OK.' But psychologically I don't think it's OK at all.

"When I go to the restaurant here, I always, always--not just sometimes--I always imagine that it is in Cambodia: 'If I am now in Cambodia, eating this kind of food in the place that I used to go to when I lived in Cambodia, it might be very exciting for me.' When I go shopping, when I go for a walk, it's still not like walking in Cambodia used to be. Many people still imagine about being in Cambodia. Oh, it's like if we go to the beach, we say 'Well, if this was a Cambodian beach, and it was a lot of Cambodians around here, it might be very, very exciting.' And that means you are not adjusted well, right? You are not so happy with what is in front of your eyes at all. You enjoy it, but it's not completely the joyful thing for you."

Samorn has never married. "That's one thing that upsets me," he says. "If I was in Cambodia, I might already have some children. But since I'm here, I just feel like marriage here is not very exciting and is not as good as in Cambodia."

Yet the past that they remember as good--or even as idyllic--is separated from the present by a broad river of pain. In his report on refugee mental-health issues for the Illinois Department of Mental Health, Bill Dolnick cites a 1985 study of Southeast Asian refugees that found that virtually all the Hmong and Cambodians studied fell into a category the researchers labeled "severe problem-indicative distress." Dolnick says, "Virtually everybody has recurring nightmares. They suffered a national trauma. I think we're just starting to get a sense of it." Cambodians tend to see emotional suffering as a private matter and rarely volunteer details of what they endured.

"I think there is a lot [of pain]," Samorn says. "I think crying in front of people is not acceptable. There is some point when you talk with them when they will cry." He pauses, and then says with a little pride, "I think at least my culture has the advantage from that kind of thing--that can earn the respect and the praise and the admiration of people. And people say 'Oh, they do have a very strong self-control.'"

Samorn says that he dreams the same nightmare over and over again. "At first I thought maybe I was strange," he says, "but after that I asked many people if they ever dream they are in the United States. And no. A couple of my very close friends, they told me they never dream in the United States. Only dream in Cambodia, about Cambodia, inside Cambodia--just what happened to them.

"I dreamed that I went back, and I tried to hide my passport in Thailand and sneak into Cambodia. And then I could not find a guide who could take me back to Thailand. And then I felt very, very sorry because there was chaos and communists in the country; I could not come back because there were problems over there. And why should I be stupid and decide to come and then could not get out? It's like real life, you know? I tried one time very hard to escape, and then I came to the United States, and I became a U.S. citizen, and I got everything. And why should I come back? That's in the dream. And then I try to figure out a way to escape again. And at that time you get panicked, and when you get panicked, you just wake up." He laughs softly. "And when I open up my eyes: 'Well, this is the ceiling of my Chicago apartment.' And so I was very, very happy."

Their lives under the Khmer Rouge shadow the Cambodian refugees in many ways. Samorn thinks that it is still difficult for them to trust their community leaders--and even each other. "That's how the Khmer Rouge affected the life of the Cambodian people," he says. "Because they just force you to think in a mistrustful way. Even among families. Some children reported to the Khmer Rouge in order to get something, a reward. And their parents were killed. Some brothers, sisters--they reported and had their siblings taken away so they can survive themselves."

For all that they suffered, the older Cambodians seem to be haunted by the thought of going back, even if they realize the chance of going anytime soon is poor. They talk about it often, says Samorn, and even make vague plans. "There might be something that happens that might change their mind not to go. Or they might stick to it that they have to go because they cannot control their emotion about going back. Some people even mention that they have agreed to let their children stay here, and then they will go back.

"I like to talk to people when they tell me they plan to go back and it seems like they have a very clear plan to go back. And my prediction is, I bet if they go, they will feel sorry if they stay there for a couple years or something like that. They can go to visit and come back, and I think that's good. When they are here, they feel homesick--that's why they want to go back. But if they go back, they will feel sorry that they left so many things and opportunities here."

Samorn may argue that rationally it would make little sense to move back to Cambodia, but he, too, is caught in the emotional net of home. "I still think that there is a possibility," he says, "sometime from now until the end of my life-- I still think that there will be a possibility that I can go back. I know, I already have the perception, and I already have the image of what it will look like and the places I plan to go. And how I will feel if I reach them."

The pull of Cambodia is strong even among younger Cambodians. Duong Rany was Samorn's client when he worked for Jewish Family and Community Services, and now the two are roommates. Rany last saw his parents, his three sisters, and his two brothers when he was forced to leave them in 1975, when he was only 13. Like Samorn, he was forced to work in one of the mobile teams, but he finds it extremely difficult to talk about those years. Now 25, he works for the Cambodian Association of Illinois, which places Cambodians in jobs and offers them various social services. One afternoon he stood outside his office, which is on the grimy and glass-littered block of Lawrence east of the el, describing, painfully, how homesick he gets for the green fields and fresh air of Cambodia. Then he stopped himself and said defiantly that he wants to be an American, adding that he came over when he was old enough to remember what he doesn't want to go back to.

The likelihood is that the past that was good is irretrievable, and to go back might only make what has been lost even more painfully clear. Although the Vietnamese ended the massacres, the war goes on between the Vietnamese-backed Cambodian troops and the weird coalition of resistance groups that includes Sihanouk supporters and the Khmer Rouge; Cambodia has now been at war for most of the past 20 years. The current government is repressive and hopelessly inefficient, and Cambodians are still struggling just to feed themselves. In Phnom Penh, child mortality is high, malnutrition is common, and medical services are limited. It is difficult to know what condition the countryside is in since foreign journalists are rarely allowed outside the capital and, in an atmosphere of government suspicion, Cambodians have grown reluctant to talk to them; yet there are indications that things may be much worse. It also seems that in some ways Cambodian culture is being deliberately undermined; schoolchildren, for instance, are taught Vietnamese and the Vietnamese interpretation of Cambodian history. Under international pressure, the Vietnamese are now withdrawing their troops, but no one is sure who will take their place. The great fear is that there will be another bloody civil war as the Khmer Rouge guerrillas, by far the most numerous and the best armed of those in the resistance, try to take power again.

"I'm not excited about the Vietnamese withdrawing," says Samorn, an opinion he says few Chicago Cambodians share. The press, he says, also seems to think that peace can somehow be negotiated between the current leaders, although a recent meeting went nowhere. "If the Chinese agree and the Soviets agree and if Pol Pot and Sihanouk agree--I mean, if they share the political cake for themselves--they think that's peace," he says angrily. "I don't think that's peace at all." After all, he says, "Who's going to take the guns away from the Khmer Rouge?" And even if someone could, where would the thousands of Khmer Rouge and their extended families live? "You cannot integrate them in society. These people, now even if they feel guilty, they will not be able to face the anger of people like myself. I could not live in the village with the Khmer Rouge who used to rule me before. They used to treat me badly. They killed my father. They killed my sisters. I saw their face."

For any immigrant, of course, to stay in America is to change. For some Cambodians, that change has included opportunities that were never considered in Cambodia. One day I stood outside Samorn's apartment building with a Cambodian man who smiled as he pointed at a group of children coming down the sidewalk with notebooks in their hands; he said it makes him happy that every child can go to school in this country. Duong Rany is taking classes part-time with the goal of becoming an elementary school teacher; in Cambodia he had hoped to become a mechanic. "I never thought that I would become a teacher because my family was poor," he says.

"I work with many families," says Samorn, "and I can see why they change. One thing is the environment here. Something here just makes you feel a little more ambitious. Let me try to get the example. Life here is very, very challenging. You have to compete, you have to challenge in order to fulfill your ambition. And here, people just feel that's unlimited. They can get a car, they can get a house, they can get land, they can get whatever they want that's available around them if they try hard enough. It's not like that in Cambodia. In Cambodia they thought in a very limited way. In Cambodia you never thought about becoming a doctor." Which is, he says, the biggest reason that many older Cambodians will stay in this country, no matter how uncomfortable they may be. "They only care-- The future is for their children," he says.

With change comes the inevitable loss of some cultural traditions. Some disappear slowly, some are already gone. Duong Rany explained that good friends of the same sex often held hands in Cambodia, but he was told in the processing camps that that wasn't a good idea in America.

Several years ago Samorn organized a group mostly of teenagers to teach them Cambodian dances. "I loved the rehearsals," says Bill Dolnick. "You'd see all these kids, high school kids, who'd come dressed in jeans like typical American kids. And then they put on music, and suddenly they'd be doing these traditional dances. And suddenly they were no longer Americans. They were Cambodians. It's a real dramatic transformation." Last year the troupe disbanded, largely because some key members moved out of the state. Some of the remaining members recently met and decided to start dancing again.

"I value the Cambodian culture very much," says Samorn. "There are so many reasons that I started the dance troupe. I know that these kinds of things will be lost sometime, somewhere, if the community is going on like right now. Living in Chicago for 5,000 Cambodians and living five families here and five families here and ten families here--it's like a pin in the lake. It's like one piece of sugar or salt that you put in a big pot of water. It's not so easy; the community here, it is not physically squeezed, but it's like you are squeezed in the middle. You know? You just look at the other people and the other communities--you just feel that you are dominated. For example, you just feel uncomfortable if you don't go to the church where you live--in the big community that all the people around you go to the church. You know what I mean? And you cannot dress according to your culture, your custom, because people around you dress this way. And that culture, you know, will be lost little by little." He says many celebrations are still held that bring the community together; people meet at weddings, at the temples, at the frequent Cambodian Association and Chicago Refugee Women's Network events. But, he says, "I'm afraid that somehow it will happen in the future, when people don't see these kinds of things as necessary or important for the community, and it will be gone."

Samorn thinks that living together in clusters helps Cambodians hang on to an identity that still is a haven for many. "Some people contend that if they live together like that, they will have a hard time to adjust. Because they just live among themselves, they speak only Cambodian to each other. And it will be difficult for them, it will take them a long time to adjust. The way I see it, I don't think so. I think that if they live together, they will have a better life because they don't feel so depressed, they have friends around, they can communicate. We feel more comfortable to do it."

But feeling comfortable is not the only reason Samorn thinks Cambodians live together when possible. "If we live, just integrate--you know, a family in one place among the other people--we just feel that we do things that offend them. For example, like cooking food. The smell of our food might offend some people. The way we think about other things, too. Children. It is difficult, too, because we have big, big families." He says that many large Cambodian families can only afford one-bedroom apartments; but if their building is full of such families, there will be no one to object.

Their fear of giving offense, says Samorn, is part of a larger sense of inferiority that he thinks many Cambodians brought with them to this country, a feeling that is hard for the older members of the community to shake. "I don't know what taught them that they were inferior," he says. "I think they feel that the concept of inferior dominates their mind. If you go on Argyle Street, you will see many Cambodians. And if you ask most Cambodians--many Cambodian people--if they ever thought about opening a small business or a restaurant or something like that, they would not feel like they can. And not because they don't have money. I think even if they have money they don't feel like their position is owner of the restaurant."

Why don't they feel that's a possibility?

"I don't know why. I think that is what we have learned. It's like the low self-image and low self-esteem--that's what they feel."

But why?

"Well, because one thing, when they were in Cambodia, most of the time they just spend in the rice field and in the jungle. They say it's because of the class and caste culture that they have learned. There are so many things that affect and control that kind of thought. They were peasants all the time. There were no schools in the countryside. Nothing at all for them. And they just feel inferior to the urban people."

I ask him whether he sees class differences in America.

"Here there is still some kind of thing in people--the caste system, class, or something like that. But you have enough education and you give enough thought to arguing and comparing. It's like you are sick, but you have a doctor. But for us, we are sick and we don't have a doctor. I mean, that kind of thought is the disease. You have the disease, too, but you have the doctor to treat you. By doctor I mean education, the environment."

Later I ask him to explain why it is that so many Thai, Chinese, and Vietnamese open businesses, while Cambodians don't. "Well, their background," he says. "They have grown up in the business environment. When they grew up, their parents were businesspeople. And I think Cambodians, most of them, were rice farmers." The major traders in Cambodia, he says, were Chinese and Vietnamese, and only rarely Cambodian. Cambodians, he adds, "might think business is not a sophisticated way to do-- You know, it's like a dishonest way when you do business. You buy something for $5, you sell back for $6 or $7. That affects your mind if you are serious. I feel that way, too, though I do business. But I don't sell anything now. I don't have anything to sell. That's one thing. And another thing involves the system. You have to go through the system in order to start your business. And Cambodians, you know, don't want to go through all the procedures."

It is late, and Samorn is sitting on the floor of his store, surrounded by boxes, boards, and paint cans. He and four other men have been working late, screwing shelves together and then painting them. For several days in a row he has worked through the night, trying to get the store ready to open.

He frequently smokes, inhaling with the deep satisfaction of the long addicted. He says he quit once for a whole year before starting the habit again. "You see many things that influence people to smoke. For example, like my heroes. I like Mike Royko and Ted Koppel more than the other people, and I rarely miss his column and his program. And I know that they both are smoking." He laughs, and then says, "It seems funny, but it's a serious thing."

Samorn follows American and world politics closely and very seriously. "I just feel like my life--the hardship, the good things, the bad things that happened to my life--many of them involve the consequence and the effect of politics," he says. "I just feel sometimes like I was victimized most of my life--up to now--by the political thing. That's why I'm interested in politics." He says he has also spent a lot of time reading everything he can find about his country and the Khmer Rouge. "When I was under the Khmer Rouge, I saw what affected my life and the current situation over there. I saw it in a very limited way. But now it's just clarified for me. It makes me know how to cope, how to tolerate. It has gotten easier for me." He says he ought to write his own book.

I ask him how much most Cambodians understand of the many intertwined reasons the Khmer Rouge came to power. How much do they know, for instance, about the heavy U.S. bombing--a half million tons--that devastated eastern Cambodia and helped drive many people there to support the Khmer Rouge?

"If you ask the Cambodian people, I'm sure that 95--more than 90 percent, they don't know anything about that at all. They don't know the connection and why. If you asked them when Americans started to drop bombs on Cambodia, they would not know. They don't know how Nixon and Kissinger practiced the politics--like what William Shawcross wrote in Sideshow. Cambodians, they don't know. It's like they were set up in a very limited place. It is like in a pond and there is only frogs. So the biggest that the frogs can be is the size of the hand. And if something happens that relates to the elephant or the buffalo, still the frog knows just about the frog and not about the elephant and, the buffalo. And it's like that. That's what the Cambodian people were. Unfortunately they were in that situation." He pauses. "I didn't know that the Congress voted to stop the aid to the Lon Nol government until I came here.

"Cambodian people were just a scapegoat, just a victim of their leaders. I just blame all the Cambodian leaders. They were not sensitive--they didn't understand anything but the power for themselves--and they just led the society to the wrong direction. I just feel sympathy for the Cambodian people." He pauses, and then adds, "Though the Khmer Rouge killed a lot of people in my family, sometimes I still feel many of them were victimized, too." Later I remark that he doesn't seem to be full of hate for the Khmer Rouge, but he shakes his head. "The degree of hate is almost the same for everybody, but the method of reacting to it is different. I just react different. I would not cut their head from their body. But I hate them the same as other people hate." After the Vietnamese invaded, he says, the Khmer Rouge who tried to hide among the other Cambodians were brutally killed.

In one way at least, Cambodian culture made it easier for cruel and unscrupulous leaders to come to power. "Cambodians lived in a culture which, I think, we call externalized--people who just believe something outside controls their life," says Samorn. "It's not that they control their lives by themselves." When the Khmer Rouge genocide began, he says, "they just accepted it. They thought it came because of karma. Karma means what you did before, and karma is like revenge. What you did before, you have to pay the price for--even if you don't know why."

But some responsibility for preventing the genocide belonged to others, Samorn says. "I know that sometimes the Cambodian tragedy was the consequence of the hypocrisy of the superpower leaders. People in the world who saw it from different points of view, they had many possibilities to help--you know, through humanitarian things, political things, economic things. Many possibilities. They should have." He pauses. "But it's hard. For other people, you get a different pain; it touches you, it moves you, and you feel and see the tragedy, but it's going to be gone soon. Because how can you think about me if you never knew me? How can you think about me who is suffering if you never knew me at all?

"I think they didn't know enough," he says. But then he adds, "They didn't do enough, the world didn't do enough. No, they didn't do enough for the Cambodian people. It was a tragedy. Sometimes it just makes me feel frustrated to talk about why the world didn't react, and sometimes it just makes me get upset and angry that they didn't use the right system to react." His words are terribly bitter, but the emotion is barely discernible in his tone.

I start to say something, and he interrupts me. "I still believe," he says gently, "that what happens to the people in the world now, it is because of just a few people who are the leaders. I mean, if they are honest enough, and if they are pure--they have a pure thought about human beings--I think they can change it. And I still believe there is a possibility that the world can change."

With Cambodia still in chaos and with an estimated 293,000 refugees on the Thai-Cambodian border, some of them in camps controlled by Khmer Rouge guerrillas where almost no contact with the outside is possible, many Chicago Cambodians believe there is a chance that someone else in their families is alive somewhere. Their search for those relatives--critical given their family-centered culture--goes on so long as there is any hope. "I feel so sorry for my family, especially my mother and father," says Duong Rany, Samorn's roommate. "When I came to the United States, many people they ask me 'How come you're never looking for your parents or your sisters and brothers?' I always tell them that I am looking for them, but I haven't been getting any news back from them--even the people who live close to my previous village never get any back from them. I sent a lot of posters with IRC [International Committee of the Red Cross], with American Red Cross, you see, to try to trace my family in refugee camps in Thailand--and also to refugee camps on the Thai-Cambodian border. Nobody knew where my family's at now. But I still hope at least one of them is still alive. And not all of them have got killed."

Only a few weeks ago, Samorn's mother learned that two of his grandaunts were alive. They had sent her two pictures, and Samorn laughs when he says that she didn't want to send them to him for fear he would lose them. She finally sent them registered mail. "That's two of them," Samorn says, carefully unwrapping the photos and holding them gently by the edges. "Both of them women. And both their husbands are gone and many of their children also gone. So just two of them. They didn't know I was alive and my mom was alive." He says he was so excited when he heard that he could hardly work.

Some of the relatives that have been located may want to come to this country, but the families here have no way to bring them. One afternoon a man named Kem Tieng came into the video store with his two small children and quietly sat down near Samorn on the floor. A girl from across the street came in and asked if she could rent a film, even though the store was not yet open. Samorn asked her if she wanted to fill out a membership card, and she said, "Hey, you know me." Samorn smiled, and said, "OK. Just go around and take whatever you like." When he went to help her, I asked Tieng if he was a friend of Samorn's. "No," he said, and then added, almost reverently, "He's my sponsor." Later Samorn explained that Tieng's wife, mother, brother, sister, and children have all been in Chicago since 1984. But his father is still behind in Cambodia, with no hope of emigrating because the U.S. has no diplomatic relations with the current Cambodian government. His father regularly steals across the Thai border to telephone Tieng collect. "He came to Thailand last time, I think," said Samorn, "and he was caught by the Thai authorities. I think he was in prison for a long time. And the family here, they try to collect the money to send there to his father's friend so that they could bribe the Thai authorities and get him out of jail. He got out of jail and crossed back to Cambodia, and now I heard that he just came to Thailand again to call the children here."

Other families know that some of their relatives are in the refugee camps in Thailand, and they assume that if they properly fill out all the required paperwork, they should eventually be able to bring their relatives to this country. But although many of these families have sent petitions through more than one agency, few have been successful in the last few years. Their helplessness causes particular anguish. Samorn guesses that most of the Chicago families have at least one relative in the camps, and that some of them are close relatives. He describes a widow with three children whose son was drafted into the resistance after he escaped to Thailand. He married, and she and the other children came to the U.S. Only later did she find out that he had stepped on a land mine and had to have both legs amputated. "She was trying very hard to get him here," says Samorn, "and I know that she has tried for several years and still nothing."

Yet reunification sometimes creates its own pain. "In many, many families there's a tremendous focus on reunifying families," says Bill Dolnick, "and they focus a tremendous amount of their energy on saving little bits of money to send over. It becomes such a major focus of their attention that when reunification finally does occur, there are often a lot of problems around it. It's not the cure-all that it's imagined, it's built up to be. Sometimes it's the family that brought the relatives that has become more Americanized, or the children have--so that it's a real wide gap. A lot of differences the rate of acculturation, expectations. A lot of expectation on the part of relatives that are brought here that might not be able to be fulfilled."

Compassion would insist that the refugee families somehow be quickly reunited, but there are many tangled reasons why they have not been. Samorn introduces me to a family that, for all the poignancy of their story, has yet to find a way through that thicket. Ros Sen is a 60-year-old grandmother who lives in Albany Park with one of her sons, Kim Orn, and her 16-year-old granddaughter, Dim Mom. Sen's youngest daughter, Kim Norm, lives nearby with her husband and two children.

One afternoon the family sits around a large mat in the park across from Ros Sen's apartment. Samorn translates their story, for though Sen has been here four and a half years, she speaks only a few words of English. Kim Norm's English is limited and she is shy about using it; Dim Mom's English comes easily and is already full of American slang. Sen is grave and almost never smiles, though when Norm's young daughter comes over and curls up in her lap, she gently strokes her head.

Until 1975, Samorn says, Sen lived with her family in Bo Pailin, a heavily jungled subprovince in southwest Cambodia. Her husband and the older of her four sons worked in mines, digging for the rubies, sapphires, and emeralds the area is famous for. Samorn adds that the rich dictator-governor of the province who controlled the mines and the miners now lives in Washington, D.C. "He's driving a cab," he says, laughing.

The family was forced out of their town when the Khmer Rouge appeared. Sen's son-in-law, who had been a Lon Nol soldier, fled. Few people had known that he was married to Sen's daughter Kim Neang, and Sen burned every picture she had of him so that no one else could find out. Most of the family managed to stay together until two years later, when Neang was forced to marry a man the Khmer Rouge picked out for her, Youk Sarun. "After you got married, you know, you could not live in the same place," says Samorn. "They assigned you to someplace else." That was the last time the family saw Neang.

When the Vietnamese invaded, the family members who are now in Chicago escaped across the border; the three other sons, fearing their young children couldn't make it, stayed behind. Soon after the family arrived in Chicago in 1984, they sent pictures of themselves to be posted in the camps in Thailand. A year later their old Bo Pailin neighbor, Kong Savoth, recognized them and sent word to Neang, who, he knew, was living in Thailand with her new husband and their two young daughters.

"OK. This is the story," Samorn says. "When the Vietnamese came in, some people escaped to the Vietnamese side. But some people were evacuated by the Khmer Rouge. Neang was evacuated by the Khmer Rouge. And she was with the Khmer Rouge for a while, and then she escaped the Khmer Rouge and split into Thailand. Then she found a Thai family who took her to live with them." Sen has a snapshot that her daughter sent her at that time of the two little girls sitting squeezed together in a chair in front of their parents. Then in 1986, Savoth sent Sen a letter in which he wrote: "When I got your letter of May 4, 1986, it didn't seem that you had received my letter. I sent one letter on March 18, 1986 to explain what happened to your daughter and family. Both your daughter and son-in-law were killed March 8, 1986, by Thai robbers."

Sen's family sent Savoth $300 so that he could pay the bribes it took to move the children to the border camp Sok Sann, where Savoth's family lives. Soon after, Sen's family filed the first petition to bring the children to America. By the end of the year, there had been no response. Frustrated, the family filed another petition through another agency. For several more months they heard nothing.

There was, in fact, nothing to tell. No one was being interviewed or processed in Sok Sann, none of whose inmates are officially considered refugees--and therefore virtually none of whom are eligible to be resettled in a third country. These people are instead known as "displaced persons," a qualification decided on by the Thai government with the acquiescence of the United Nations and the rest of the world. Of the 293,000 Cambodians in camps on the border or inside Thailand, 270,000 are now considered displaced persons. Many of them have lived in the camps for years. They cannot go to a third country, and they cannot go back to Cambodia as the current government there considers them traitors for having fled or for fighting in the resistance. The camps have changed little over the years; in many, conditions remain terrible. Food is limited, schools are rare, and work is almost nonexistent, but violence and suicides are increasingly common. To step outside the camps is to risk being killed by Thai guards, Cambodian bandits, or land mines.

Thailand doesn't want to do anything that would encourage more Cambodians to cross its border in hopes of going to the United States or anywhere else. It maintains that it was forced to adopt such policies because third countries have been unwilling to accept more than a few of those that it has labeled refugees. In 1987, only about 30,000 refugees from all of Southeast Asia were admitted to the U.S., which takes many more of them than other countries. Only about 1,500 of those were Cambodian. In total since 1975, the U.S. has accepted about 145,000 Cambodians.

Even if Sen's grandchildren could be considered for resettlement in the U.S. as refugees, they would not be seen as close relatives, and therefore would not be given the priority of other cases. Of those who technically might have priority--first priority being given to those who worked with the U.S. government before 1975--many have not been processed because there have been too few Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) officers to review their cases, a shortage due to budget cuts under the Reagan administration. And of those whose cases have been reviewed, many have been rejected as INS interpretation of U.S. policies has grown stricter and, some say, arbitrary. Until there is a change in U.S. practice, or until there is political stability in Cambodia and people are once again free to emigrate, many of the Chicago families who want to bring relatives to live with them probably will not be able to.

In June of 1987, Sen received from the international agency that coordinates resettlement a telex suggesting that she file a "humanitarian parole" request as "the only avenue for processing of children." However, few refugee caseworkers have resorted to this type of petition, which may be used only when no other option is possible and when strict conditions are met. Only about 700 Cambodians have come to the U.S. through such petitions; 300 more are now being processed. Although the two children certainly seem to meet the qualifications for consideration, the Thai would still have to give INS officials permission to interview them. Even after permission is granted, and it may not be, the process of bringing the children here could take months.

The children may not have months. At the end of June, another letter arrived from Savoth in which he wrote: "Sok Sann camp will be moved farther inside Cambodia if the Vietnamese withdraw. If they don't, I don't know what will happen. If Sok Sann camp moves, the new location will be in Som Lot in Battambang province, the place where there is a lot of malaria. If you want to bring the two children to the United States, you should do it before December of this year because it's far from Thailand to that new place." The closing of Sok Sann may be just a rumor, but Trudi Langendorf says that the refugees in the camps often have the best information.

Sen's family has had good news in the past couple of months. One of Sen's sons was released from prison in Cambodia, where he had been held by the Vietnamese for supposedly being affiliated with the Khmer Rouge. He wrote that the other two sons she left behind were also alive and working on rice farms in central Cambodia. Sen's granddaughter Dim Mom also received a letter and a photograph in late July from her father, who is now living in a camp in Thailand.

I ask whether the family will try to bring Mom's father to the U.S. Samorn asks Sen, and then says, "She feels that it's impossible. And she doesn't want him here because he married with another woman." Apparently, Mom's father had also been forced to remarry by the Khmer Rouge.

Later I ask Samorn why Sen had been so hard on him.

"I think it's the attitude, the Cambodian tradition," he says. "It is difficult for Cambodian families to get along when they have stepparents and children. That's one thing. It is not the usual thing that Cambodians adopt children or anything like that. Sen's case, I think she just thinks 'Well, he's not related to my family anymore.' He can be her son-in-law if her daughter is alive, but since her daughter is already gone, he's not related. Mom is half her daughter's blood, half that guy's blood. So the legitimate way of thinking for Cambodian people is like that: Mom and her father, it's fine because Mom is a half blood of his--but with Ros Sen, it is nothing. It puts the children in a very difficult position."

Sen's children say that not having her grandchildren here is hardest on her. It was getting late on another afternoon that I spent with the family in their apartment, and Sen had been sitting quietly without talking for some time. I asked Dim Mom to ask her grandmother whether I could come back another day.

Mom was silent for a moment and then said, "When she remembers everything, she gets upset. So that's why I dont want to ask."

"Keep in mind that what they passed through in the war is still going on in their minds, and they can't forget," said Duong Rany, who had stopped by earlier. "The youngest ones, I think, when they came to this country--everything is new. They change a lot, change fast, accept new ways, a life. The thing that's hard is for the old people."

When asked whether there are things that make Sen happy, Rany shook his head. Mom said, "Sometimes a little. If she stayed at home and do all the work, she might forget. But if she went out with somebody and saw something that she shouldn't see, she starts thinking again."

What do you mean, I asked, "something she shouldn't see"?

Mom looked down at her lap. "Like it happens to me, too, you know. And when I go somewhere and see something that I don't want to see--some people playing with their parents or something--I start thinking again."

Samorn stands behind the counter of his neat and brightly lit video store, which has been open for two weeks. Now and then someone comes in, and he carefully checks the receipts of films they return and diligently writes up new ones for films they want to rent. Two deaf men come in together, and there is a long exchange of written notes. The film they came for is out, but Samorn writes that they may reserve it if they want to. They write back that they do. A man comes in and asks if Samorn has any Mexican movies. Samorn says no, and the man says he should. "I think we will have in the future," says Samorn obligingly.

I ask him what can help dull the pain he sees in the Cambodian community.

"Some of the people who are knowledgeable in the psychological concept, they just think that things might go away if people can have something more interesting and more serious to dominate their thought," says Samorn. "I don't think so. I think there is nothing else that is more serious or that could dominate the experiences that people got during the Khmer Rouge. I don't think it will be gone. You think, just to some degree how you can adjust to it. How you can adjust to your old pain and your old experiences. I just feel--even if I die and my spirit is still alive, my body gone--this kind of thing stays. I could forget what I ate yesterday. But this kind of thing, it's like nothing else. There is the whole picture of that time in my brain. I can remember well almost everywhere I went and every day at that time."

His own pain includes more than what he saw done to others, more than what was done to him. "I feel guilty that my uncle could not survive," he says. "I feel guilty that my father could not survive. I feel guilty that my sister and brother could not survive. What makes me feel guilty is I just feel like I do have the intelligence to manage my life to survive. Why could I not use that intelligence to help the loved ones to survive the same way as I do? That's one thing that can make me feel guilty. And the other thing-- Like my uncle, he escaped because he heard the rumor that I was alive and I was in Thailand. And he came to look for me. And I just feel, well, that's what motivated him. Because of me, it motivated him to escape, and then his life was ended because of me." He pauses. "I feel guilty for my brother, my sister, and many other people."

It is a long time before he goes on. "To heal it completely, I don't think there is any way to help people do it, you know. This kind of thing, it's terrible." He starts talking quickly and forcefully of his constant fear when he lived under the Khmer Rouge. "It happened to you every second, every day. Even if you sleep. Before I slept, I was very afraid. I was thinking about what I would-- Well, I was afraid if I would be ridiculed, and I might say something that was wrong. Every second, you never thought of anything else. And these things happen to you for months, for years. And how can it be taken away?"

I say that since he wants to stay in social work, he must believe that it is valuable. He agrees that it does help the refugees to deal with their pain. "Psychology is one of the means that goes a very long distance in helping the psychological problem," he says. "But it's not the end of the problem. For example, you came through this kind of thing, and when you pass it and you get to another thing that's more interesting, you feel excited. And people might misinterpret it and think that if you get to the other more interesting thing and feel excited, you might forget that thing. For example, like when people passed the test, the interview, to come to the United States for resettlement, they were very excited. I myself, I was very excited. I felt like, OK, I would see the new world, the completely new world that's very different--much, much different from what I came through. And it happened right away--at the same time when you are on the plane, and the plane was landing in the U.S., and you saw the lights, the beautiful lights, and you saw a building, the skyscrapers, and you saw cars around and people around--everything different from what you just went through. And you were very excited. You feel like, OK, this is my new life, and my life will be changed. But after you adjust to these things, the old thing begins to happen in your mind again. It comes back."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.


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