Cambodian Refugees in the U.S. Have Not Forgotten Those Left Behind : They Work Toward Helping Countrymen Who Seek to Resettle

Times Staff Writer

With little more outward emotion than they show as they patiently count out dimes and quarters in the “Drop a Coin, Save a Life” canisters they set out in Chinatown markets, the Cambodian refugees tell their stories--of holding their children in their arms as they died of starvation, of torture and homelessness and financial ruin.

But life goes on, because it must, because there are surviving children and they must have a better life. They live in America now.

And, despite horror heaped upon horror, tragedy upon tragedy, they can laugh still, laugh at themselves and their struggle to accommodate to Western ways.

New Experiences

Te Khim, 20, giggled as she described typical conversations between newly arrived refugees and Americans: “How are you?” “I am 45 years old.” “What’s your name? “Chinatown.”

“They don’t know how to turn on a stove,” she said, “or use the bathtub (a luxury found only in the cities in their country) or run a vacuum.” Crossing a busy city street is a terrifying experience.


(Their country, with a population of about 5 million, has only 48,000 TV sets, 75,000 telephones and 30,000 private automobiles.)

The cultural gap is enormous. One refugee spoke, for example, of “the family problem. In the United States no one spanks their kids.” He added, “In Cambodia boys and girls never have hugging together, or kissing.”

Te Khim, the only paid worker at the headquarters of the Khmer Humanitarian Organization in Echo Park, is herself a paradox. She can neither read nor write her native language, because the Communists closed the schools in Cambodia when she was 5; when her family came to America in 1980, an error on her documents put her age at 18, rather than 15. “I can’t go to high school,” she said, “so all I go to is adult school and college.”

A Success Story

Today, proficient in English, she is studying for a degree in accounting at Long Beach City College while also working as a receptionist at KHO, a volunteer organization that attempts to meet the needs of Cambodian refugees in Thailand and those newly arrived in Los Angeles.

Te Khim is a success story. To put that story in perspective is to hear her mother, Ov Kim, 45, with her daughter as interpreter, tell of 10 years of oppression and deprivation and death, of her husband being taken forcibly from the family’s home, never to be seen again, of Te Khim’s little brother who died for lack of food.

The suffering of the Cambodian people since 1970 has been extraordinary even in a world scarred by violence; five years of war followed by Communist revolution and foreign invasion have left at least 1 million of the prewar population dead. Cambodian society, its customs and traditions have been shattered. The “extermination” included 15,000 of Cambodia’s 20,000 teachers and all but 40 of its 700 doctors. The upper and middle classes were virtually wiped out.

Dr. Haing Ngor, one of the surviving physicians and the Los Angeles Cambodian community’s Oscar-winning celebrity (for “The Killing Fields”), told of continuing “gross human rights violations” against the Cambodian people at the hands of the Vietnamese in a recent speech to Amnesty International in San Francisco. He told of the “disappearance” of persons suspected of opposing the ruling regime, of routine torture of those suspected of resistance activities.

Torture, arbitrary arrest and detention of political prisoners “have increased significantly over the last four years,” Haing Ngor said; the prisoners include children who have family members in the resistance. Cambodian civilians, he said, are victims of rape, robbery and murder at the hands of Vietnamese soldiers.

The refugee camps in Thailand are now home to thousands who have fled from war, among them children long since separated from parents and siblings.

A Gesture of Support

It is for these countrymen that those who have found a new home in Los Angeles distribute those “Drop a Coin, Save a Life” canisters. It is to a large extent a gesture of support--a typical six months may yield $1,300--but that $1,300 buys food and medicine for a few in the camps.

Haing Ngor, whose ordeal under the Khmer Rouge communist regime and subsequent escape were chronicled in “The Killing Fields,” and who now works as a counselor (currently on six months’ leave) for Indochinese refugees in Los Angeles, met briefly recently with President Reagan at the White House to discuss the plight of Cambodian refugees along the Thai border and also the problems facing those who have resettled in this area.

Locally, the Khmer Humanitarian Organization receives hundreds of letters forwarded through the International Red Cross from refugees in the camps in Thailand. They beg for help in paving their path to the United States; almost all of them will be turned down.

The State Department announced recently that the United States may soon discontinue the processing of Cambodian refugees in Thailand for resettlement in this country, thus ending a program that has brought 133,000 refugees to the United States, 12,000 of them to the Los Angeles area, since the Communist takeover in Cambodia in 1975.

A State Department spokesman said the United States is not “stopping the processing,” per se; rather, that it has “just run out” of refugees eligible for admission. However, the Administration has said it may review the cases of some of the 15,000 who remain in the largest Thai camp at Khao-i-Dang. Some of those who have previously been found ineligible include refugees believed by the State Department to have criminal backgrounds or links to the Khmer Rouge.

U.S. criteria for admission give priority to Cambodians with close relatives in this country, those who fled persecution during the Khmer Rouge regime or who were in danger under the Vietnamese, and former members of the military.

Meanwhile, many of those refugees refused admission are living in a never-never land. Thailand does not want them to settle there; few choose to accept the Phnom Penh government’s offers of amnesty to return to their homeland, and they will not be given the opportunity to start a new life in a new land. Perhaps as many as another 230,000, the “overflow,” driven out of Cambodia by recent Vietnamese military activity, are in camps along the Thai-Cambodia border.

Hay Yang, 30, is executive director of the Khmer Humanitarian Organization, which has an office in Bangkok as well as headquarters in a small commercial building on Sunset Boulevard in Echo Park. Founded in 1980 to assist Cambodians who had fled to Thailand, the volunteer organization was inactive for several years before being revived in 1982.

The KHO recognizes that the money it raises, all through private donation, is a Band-Aid but, Hay Yang said, “we felt at least we can give our warm hand to them.”

Three-fourths of the appeals for help come from Cambodians who fled to Vietnam during the Pol Pot Khmer Rouge regime; Hay Yang estimates that there are 8,000 Cambodians in Vietnam, the vast majority living in refugee camps where, he said, each family, no matter its size, must subsist on a pound of rice per day.

The United States does not permit these Cambodians (except the few with relatives who are U.S. citizens or permanent-resident aliens and have approved visas or are former direct-hire employees of the U.S. government or U.S. firms) to enter as refugees under the Orderly Departure Program.

A State Department spokesman explained, “Cambodia is now controlled by Vietnam. Therefore, in principal, Cambodians in Vietnam should be free to go back to Cambodia, back home . . . it’s a little hard to argue they’re refugees. Some are very sad cases. We’re aware of all that.”

‘Just Like Prisoners’

Hay Yang explained the KHO position in opposition to the “for-Vietnamese-only” restriction on the Orderly Departure Program: “The Vietnamese (under communism) still have a little money, they still have a piece of property. But the Cambodian refugees, they are homeless. They lost their family, lost their property. They’re living without any rights at all, just like prisoners.”

If a Vietnamese in Vietnam can be considered a refugee, the Cambodians ask, why are the Cambodians in Vietnam excluded? “Vietnam is not a land for Cambodians,” Hay Yang said. “Vietnam is a land for Vietnamese. Why do they give the resettlement opportunity to Vietnamese if it is all right to live there?”

While a State Department spokesman said conditions for the Cambodians in the Thai camps are “acceptable,” Hay Yang, who visited the camps in September, asked, “Compared to what? The dog in the United States? It is the level of the animal living in the zoo.” He spoke of “robbery and rape,” of minimal living conditions.

The U.S. government will accept 50,000 refugees from Indochina this fiscal year. Hay Yang recognizes that America cannot throw open its doors to every Cambodian who has fled Cambodia but, he said, “I’m just praying, praying instead of hoping, that our government can give a fair opportunity to those innocent war survivors,” perhaps through “working with other countries” that might accept them.

After four years’ effort, the KHO has been successful in seeing the first Cambodian family reach California from Vietnam. But, Hay Yang said, thousands of others remain.

“Without U.S. help,” Hay Yang said, “the Cambodian people will die more and more.” He said he knows of no Cambodians who have opted to return to Cambodia--"I can’t imagine what would happen to them . . . I can imagine. It’s too tragic. It’s like going back to hell.

“They will be killed. Cambodia is still in war, just like ‘The Killing Fields.’ ”

Meanwhile, KHO volunteers continue their independent efforts. Hay Yang reported that the group’s request for reconsideration of families already rejected by the United States has resulted in 15 families resettling in Los Angeles, one as recently as March 5.

Temporary Housing

Once sponsors have been found, and the families reach Los Angeles, the resettlement process is only beginning. The KHO finds temporary housing for them, until they can begin getting government support, sees that they have food and, almost as important, helps ease them into life in Los Angeles.

Long Beach has the largest Cambodian population in the country. But the refugees are settling too in Echo Park and other areas of metropolitan Los Angeles. Considering the violence they have lived through, it is perhaps not surprising that, among all Indochinese refugees, the Cambodians have the most difficulty adjusting to life here.

Part of the KHO’s mission, he said, is to “walk them across from our culture to the American culture.” That may mean greeting an arriving family at Los Angeles International Airport with snack food that is familiar to them. Or it may mean showing them the ropes of the social service system.

Elizabeth Beck, who decided to do volunteer work for the KHO after being touched by “The Killing Fields,” said, “Some of the Cambodians who arrive here, especially the children, have spent their whole lives in a war zone or a refugee camp. They’ve never seen a library or a zoo.”

She told of taking a group of Cambodian youngsters to the zoo: “Three children stopped at the door of the koala house and would not go in” because it was dark inside. Psychological counseling for this immigrant group is needed almost as much as shelter and clothing.

Only Had Clothes On His Back

Hay Yang came to the United States in January, 1979, under sponsorship of World Vision International, for which he had worked in Cambodia as counselor at an orphanage. He arrived here with only the clothes on his back and the ability to speak English. A dapper, Western-style dresser today, Hay Yang laughed as he recalled, “I had only a Cambodian skirt.”

As Hay Yang tells his own story, his ready smile disappears and he mops at tears. It is of his ordeal as a member of a conscripted work crew building a dam for the Khmer Rouge, a crew of 14,000, of which he was one of only 170 survivors after seven months of being overworked and underfed.

Weakened by his diet of the water in which rice had been boiled, he was hospitalized with malaria. Medicine was in short supply and he was rationed only one quinine pill a day.

The outlook was grim. Hay Yang’s group leader in the field had told him he had been sick too long and the others had been thinking of letting him die so they could eat him. He realized, too, that his sister, also on a work crew, was starving herself while bringing him her food ration.

Better to Die

He hit upon a plan: He saved each day’s quinine pill until he had 60 pills. Then, he said, “I drank them at one time. I felt it was better for me to die than to be killed.” He smiled as he told the end of the story: “When I got up, my disease was gone.”

He understands the desperation in the letters that come to the KHO office from illegal refugees in Thailand. The letters tell of relatives and friends who drowned in a water tank while hiding from the Thai army, of others who suffocated in an underground hiding place.

He knows, “We cannot raise up the whole world on our own,” as a small volunteer organization, but “if we don’t help them I don’t think anyone will.” He acknowledges members of his delegation bribing Thai officers at the camps so that illegal refugees would get food, but added quickly, “I don’t think this is a long-term method” of helping.

So, the KHO is adding political action to its agenda. The organization has been in contact with Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.), who has visited refugee camps in Southeast Asia, and other senators. “We’re asking,” Hay Yang said, “that they set up congressional hearings soonest, and it is best in Long Beach.”

One of the things that concerns the KHO is changing U.S. attitudes toward refugees from Southeast Asia as more and more of them arrive. Approximately 740,000 Indochinese refugees have resettled in the United States in the last decade, 480,000 of them Vietnamese. Many of the refugees have come to Southern California.

It is called “compassion fatigue” and, the KHO people contend, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. They worry that more restrictive immigration policies could affect domestic resettlement and also make conditions worse for refugees now in the countries of first asylum.

It is difficult to think in terms of “compassion fatigue” as the stories unfold. Ngor Ba Lam, 52 (a “cousin” of the actor, whose name by Cambodian custom is Ngor Haing), and chairman of the board of KHO, described his life as “an average rich man” from the time the Communists came until his family’s flight to freedom in April of 1980.

He spoke through an interpreter, pulling from his wallet a business card identifying him as president and general director of an import-export business in Phnom Penh. Today, he works in a Los Angeles liquor store.

A Familiar Story

His story of the last years in Cambodia is a familiar one--confiscation of the family’s home and place of business, separation from his wife and six children, the youngest of whom was only 4, being sent to different work camps, where the adults cut trees and grew rice, sometimes working each day in water up to their armpits.

When told that his 4-year-old daughter was sick and dying, Ngor Ba Lam begged to go to her--"They said ‘All right, we’ll give you half an hour.’ She was dead already and I had to dig a little ground and put her in. . . . “

A second daughter, 16, died of starvation. He had rushed to her side with his rations but it was too late--"The first spoon of rice, and she died.” Within a year Ngor Ba Lam and his wife also lost two sons, one a 21-year-old who had been studying in France but had returned home to help his parents.

He paused for a minute, reflecting: “When my daughter died, I had no special clothes to cover her. The ground didn’t even cover the body. I was too skinny and too weak to dig.”

In the fighting and confusion that followed the arrival of the Vietnamese in 1979, he and his wife, Tang Kheng, were reunited with their surviving son and daughter and, joining forces with Dr. Haing Ngor and the latter’s niece, the physician’s only surviving relative, eventually made it to the Thai border.

Ngor Ba Lam remembered, “My youngest son tied a rope on my hand and pulled me behind him” because vitamin deficiency had robbed him of his night vision.

That son is now a 10th-grader in a Los Angeles school. Ngor Ba Lam’s wife works as a seamstress and they are managing. “Because I went through this,” he said, “I want to help others have the same opportunity. A million thanks to the Americans.” Still in Vietnam, denied entry to the United States, are his mother and two sisters, the only survivors of his 10 siblings.

The others tell their stories. Among them are Nguon Chour and his wife, Ong Iem Keang, who arrived here March 5 with their children, 3 and 8. He is 42, a skinny man who laughs readily. Having so recently been in a Thai refugee camp, he said, “We (those still there) have to have some support from friends” to survive.

Food is in short supply, he said; for those with money, vendors come into the camps offering chickens and vegetables--one chicken, Nguon Chour said, for $6.

In camp, both he and his wife had been volunteers in the Chinese-speaking community of 300, he as a school principal, she as a teacher. Now, they will be going to school to learn English. During five months of U. S. orientation in the Philippines, he noted, they learned about things like supermarkets and “the 26 ABCs.”

‘A Very Good Place’

It will be hard, but he is happy. “Everything is free,” he said, “wherever I want to go. This is a very good place for me.”

Te Mong Thai, 51, and his wife, Ngath Kiang, had endured the deaths of five of their eight children and the loss of their livelihood, a restaurant in Phnom Penh; still, they were cheerfully optimistic about chances for a new start when they arrived here in January.

A few months later she was hospitalized for radiation treatment, having been diagnosed as having cancer.

Only a week before, she had been talking about their hopes for the future, of the chances their three teen-agers will have in America, of English classes for her and her husband, of plans for both of them to learn to operate sewing machines at the KHO-sponsored center that has been established, with state funding, in a rented space downtown.

Meanwhile, two daughters have found jobs, in a garment factory, and are also learning English. Te Mong Thai has found work as a cook and the family is no longer dependent on public aid.

Te Khim, the personable and quite Westernized receptionist at the KHO office, reflected on a childhood in which it was commonplace for the Communists to “tie a whole string of people together and shoot them,” of the Communists luring distraught parents to their side on the false promise of having their children returned, of her 6-year-old brother who died of starvation.

Cambodia Remembered

Te Khim’s mother, Ov Kim, can still remember another Cambodia, a peaceful place where as a young girl she lived in a pole house in a small town and the family sold fish and rice to a local market. “We could do anything,” she said, “go anywhere, just like in the United States.”

She does not expect to see her husband again; once, she paid his jailers $100, as they asked, for his return, but he was not returned.

Ov Kim does not dwell on the past. She is busy, going to adult school to learn English, taking in sewing to supplement Aid to Dependent Children payments. She is happy for her four children. “Under the Communists for 10 years,” she said, “I worried they’d never go to school, they’d be like blind people who can’t read.”

Her daughter remembers their orientation period at the Philippine Refugee Processing Center on the Bataan Peninsula, where the refugees learned about the American way of life. “We thought it was a movie,” she said. “When we get here we find it’s the real thing.”

The real thing includes entrepreneurship, and the Cambodian refugees are learning. Chinese Cambodians have Chinese restaurants in Chinatown. Others, plagued by language difficulties, must take menial jobs. But, said one, “most are successful. First they’re a donut shop manager. They save their money and they own a donut shop. The other part of the family is doing sewing. They just hope their children can have a better life.”

When the Cambodian refugees speak of their Cambodia, it is not in terms of going back. Not to Kampuchea. But many, like 30-year-old Hay Yang, say, “When I become old, I hope I can see my motherland.”