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Looking Back: A Refugee Remembers Cambodia

by Jim Yost

For thousands of Cambodian-Americans, April 1975 has many connotations. One such Khmer is Salatha Mok. Salatha, or Sally, is a resident of Houston, Texas, and has adapted well to her American home and society since her resettlement there in 1981. But, like many Cambodian-Americans who are old enough to remember life before and during the days of the "killing fields," she lives every day with emotional complexities that few non-Cambodians will ever understand.

Now an office manager, and a part-time college student nearing her Bachelor's Degree, Sally was a college-trained primary school teacher in Phnom Penh in 1975. She still utilizes those skills as a Sunday school teacher, something she enjoys very much. But there are times when her teaching brings back memories of a former life.

Salatha Yost "I can be teaching a lesson, looking at my class, in their American clothes, and speaking English, and then I look at their little faces... they are the same faces that I looked upon as a young teacher in Phnom Penh," she says. "The memories come back... riding to the school in the military dump-truck to protect us from Khmer Rouge grenades and rockets, the terrorist attacks on the schools, and the day the American flag was lowered at the U.S. Embassy in April of 1975. Sometimes I wonder and dream about my children in my classes... did they survive?

"But then again, perhaps sometimes I think it is better that I do not know... I keep them always in my prayers."

There are many places around Houston and the Galveston Bay area that bear a strong resemblence to some parts of Cambodia. "Bay Area Park in the spring and summer looks very much like some of the beautiful park areas on the lakes and near the Mekong river in Phnom Penh," Sally says. "On a summer evening, when a warm wind is blowing across the lake, I can visualize the happier times of my youth, picnics, outings with family and friends, and the festivals. We had such good times, and such simple pleasures. The culture shock of America was a drastic change for many of us. Here, society drives for more, faster, bigger, and more expensive. The trips to the park help me to relax sometimes, but here, too, a sense of sadness sometimes fills me when my mind journeys back in time."

For most Americans, grocery shopping is considered a necessary burden. But most Cambodian-Americans, like Sally, look at a trip to the market from a different perspective. She says, "Going to the market was always fun... the variety, the smells, the bargaining, I look forward to all of these. Although Houston has some well-stocked Asian markets, nothing will ever compare to the markets back in Phnom Penh, at least as far as sentimental value is concerned. Nowadays, much of what we buy is canned or frozen. That's OK for convenience, but sometimes I really miss the liveliness of the open-air markets around Phnom Penh, especially before 1975. After early 1975, the war began to affect our market food stocks very severely. It was a very ominous sign of things to come. Soon we would all be grateful for even a spoonful of rice. I think that is why survivors of the 'killing fields' appreciate food so much. Because we went so long with so little we don't take food for granted. A full stomach is a blessing. I can never forget what starvation feels like or what it does to a human being."

Sally has returned to Cambodia twice, as a missionary worker, in 1991 and 1992. In addition, she and her younger sister have saved enough to pay for a trip by their only surviving sister to come to visit them in Houston, a reunion that took twenty years to come about. Sally and Salany did not even know that their sister, Mok Lach, was even alive until 1983.

"I have known what it is like to live in relative paradise, and I have also known what it must be like to live in hell," she says. "All that is precious to a Cambodian, our culture, our tradition, our ancient history, was almost lost forever at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. I saw innocence itself die, along with millions of innocent people who committed no crime but to be alive and in the path of a genocidal movement.

"As a Cambodian-American I have learned the importance and the value of freedom, that it must be protected and cherished, and never taken for granted. When your freedom is lost, the soul dies, the body is but a hollow vessel. Cambodia and its most precious resource, her people, were brought down to absolute emptiness by what transpired between 1975 and 1979. I pray that we, the Khmer-Americans, can help fill the reservoir of the soul of our homeland, with the essence of freedom, wisdom from the past, and hope for the future."

Often, the proclamation "Never again," is associated with the Nazi holocaust. The Cambodian holocaust was the test of the world's committment to "Never again." The free world failed the test, and the Cambodian people paid, and continue to pay the price to this very day. Listen to the Cambodian survivors, and to the echoes of the killing fields.

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