Refugee Singer Resurfaces After Paralyzing Gunshot Wound

Sacramento, California – Touch Srey Nich has arrived in the US, and the Cambodian community here is greeting her with concern, curiosity and open wallets.

The famous pop singer, who remains paralyzed from the neck down after a gunman shot her three times in the neck and face outside of a Phnom Penh flower shop in October 2003, spends her days lying under a pink quilt in the back bedroom of a duplex home.

With her younger sister by her bedside, she greets an increasing number of Cambodian-American well-wishers, watches karaoke videos and English-language television and hopes that US medical care will help her to once again move her broken body.

The singer particularly likes to watch videos of herself performing on stage, and her lungs have recently become strong enough for her to attempt to sing along to karaoke.

“But I cannot sing as well as before,” she said on Sunday.

In October, Touch Srey Nich, 25, was recognized as a refugee and a person of concern by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees office in Bangkok.

She arrived in Sacramento on Jan 21 with her father, brother and sister. The family is staying in the southern part of this sprawled-out city on a cul-de-sac that includes two other Cambodian households, including the family of Kith Pong.

Kith Pong, a Cambodian-American, has joined with other immigrants to organize a new life for Touch Srey Nich and her family. He lobbied the US State Department to allow Touch Srey Nich into the US, and is now focused on setting up a nonprofit organization to raise money for her long-term care.

Security is also a concern for Kith Pong and the family of Touch Srey Nich. Word has spread quickly among Cambodian-Americans of the singer’s whereabouts, and visitors show up unannounced every day.

The day after the family arrived, Kith Pong received a phone call from a Cambodian-American man in Fresno, which is 280 km south of Sacramento. The man warned that Southeast Asian gangs in Fresno have been asked by people from Phnom Penh to locate Touch Srey Nich. He said Kith Pong and Touch Srey Nich’s family should be careful.

Then on Jan 27, a Cambodian-American man in his thirties showed up at Touch Srey Nich’s house. He visited with the family and with the singer for two hours, “acting like a policeman” and offering the family his protection, Kith Pong said.

Kith Pong said he knew the man to be a gang leader who had once lived in Sacramento and was now living in Stockton, where a large Cambodian community exists. Of all the visitors Touch Srey Nich has received, this man stood out, said Touch Sieng, the father of Touch Srey Nich.

“I was very afraid,” he said. “Everybody said he is a gangster.”

The visit prompted Kith Pong to install an alarm and to ponder whether more security measures at Touch Srey Nich’s home were needed.

This all comes on the heels of another, more worrisome, incident that took place in Bangkok in December.

According to Kith Pong and Touch Sieng, two Cambodian men came to the Bangkok hospital where Touch Srey Nich was staying and asked a Cambodian-Thai man for Touch Srey Nich’s room number.

The Cambodian-Thai man, who was working as an interpreter for Touch Srey Nich and her family, refused to give the two men the information, despite persistent pleas and offers of money, Kith Pong said.

The interpreter’s story reached Kith Pong through another Cambodian-American who was also raising money for Touch Srey Nich’s care.

Kith Pong contacted the US Embassy in Bangkok, which conducted its own investigation and confirmed that the incident took place, Kith Pong said.

From there, the family’s asylum application was pushed through, and Kith Pong was asked by an embassy official to find a hospital where Touch Srey Nich could receive medical care.

But Touch Srey Nich has yet to receive care from the hospital in Sacramento. Her eligibility to receive Medicare benefits from the US government is still being determined, Kith Pong said.

“She is a little disappointed about this. She thought that she could arrive here and immediately get the care,” he said. “She’s supposed to be in the hospital, but instead they sent her home.”

About 30 people have visited Touch Srey Nich on each of the last few weekends, Kith Pong said. But that number looks likely to increase as word spreads of her location.

Some make the pilgrimage solely to see the famous singer, or they use Touch Srey Nich’s arrival in the US as an excuse to make a trip to Northern California to see family and friends.

There are regular arrivals from Los Angeles and Long Beach, about a six hour drive from here. Cambodian-Americans have also visited from the large Cambodian community in Lowell, Massachusetts, as well as from the Washington, DC, area, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island.

“They just get in a plane and come. They might have relatives in California, so they just drop by,” Kith Pong said.

Kith Pong rented the house for Touch Srey Nich’s family for $950 a month, using donated money, and covering the rent is another expense that the foundation will have to handle.

The house is several kilometers from a typical California freeway. There’s a mall nearby, and just off the freeway is a six-lane boulevard lined with an unending number of fast food chain restaurants.

The home features a large living room that has little furniture but a television. There’s a kitchen and an eating area, with a table that seats six.

On Friday, as visitors milled about his new home, Touch Sieng sat at the table composing a thank you letter in Khmer to the Cambodian-American community and to the US government.

“I am happy to come here. I hope that the high technology can help her,” he said in an interview. “Now I have a lot of hope for the stem cell medicine research. That would make me very happy.”

On two recent visits, Cambodian food was cooking in the kitchen and an offering of donuts, an economic staple for many members of the community, lay on the kitchen counter.

There are two bedrooms in the back, and Touch Srey Nich stays in the larger of the two rooms. Stuffed animals are perched at the foot of her bed. There’s a television and a karaoke machine, and on the table next to the bed are medicine bottles, fruit and a gold-colored statue of Buddha.

A folded up bed is pushed up against the wall, making enough room for visitors to crowd in.

Touch Srey Nich typically stays awake until midnight, passing the time by chatting with her sister.

During the night, family members move her body into different sleeping positions so as to avoid the onset of bed sores. She wakes up at about 7 am, and during the day her sister bathes and cleans her.

Touch Srey Nich’s face is swollen, there’s a scar on her forehead and a few of her front teeth are missing. She often has a sore throat and pain in her neck, but she said she is emotionally stronger now than she was during those first few months after the shooting.

“I don’t feel that good, but better than before,” she said on Sunday. “I felt very sad at first when I went to Bangkok.”

Kith Pong said Touch Srey Nich realizes that her mother died trying to shield her from the assassin’s bullets. “She misses her very much. But she does not talk openly about her feelings,” he said.

On Sunday, about 15 people stood next to her bed, some of them taking turns posing for photographs with the singer at the head of the bed, while others placed cash on her blanket. As soon as that group left, another arrived, towing a Buddhist monk along to offer a blessing.

When asked how she felt about the influx of visitors, she said, “Sometimes I feel overwhelmed. But at the same time I am happy.”

Across the street at Kith Pong’s house, a group of about a dozen Cambodian-Americans from Sacramento, Fresno, Modesto and Stockton met around Kith Pong’s dining room table to talk about the non-profit foundation.

They want to set up a Web site, file the forms with the government to create the foundation and hire a nurse to provide day-to-day care. The foundation would be able to accept donations without affecting Touch Srey Nich’s eligibility to receive basic care from the US government’s Medicare program, Kith Pong said.

In the meantime, other Cambodian-American organizations are raising money on her behalf, Kith Pong said.

Kith Pong said he hopes the new foundation can raise $30,000 in the next three or four months.

“We know that Medicare will not fully cover her,” he said. “It is the duty of the Cambodian people to help. It is not just up to the American government to pay for her.”

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