This is Part 3 of a four-part series. Read Youk Chhang, Part I: The Long Journey to Asia’s Most Respected Award and Youk Chhang, Part 2: The Khmer Rouge Nightmare.
Back in Phnom Penh, Mr. Chhang and his mother shared a house with other families in the city center. (The government had sold their Tuol Kok home to another family during the 1980s.) Soon after, his mother, who had been selling small items on the street, urged him to flee and try to immigrate to the U.S, where his cousin Chhang Song now lived.
Mr. Chhang followed her advice. At the time, drivers smuggling people over the Thai border were charging the equivalent of U.S $300-$500 in gold. “I [only] had $5,” Mr. Chhang said. He nonetheless offered what little he had to a driver, promising to pay the balance once he had arrived in the U.S. The driver told him to keep his money and, since Mr. Chhang did not have enough to pay Thai soldiers at the border, offered to instruct him on how to make the crossing undetected.
Thus began a long journey that would prove nearly as harsh as the Khmer Rouge era, Mr. Chhang said. Leaving Phnom Penh dressed as Vietnamese soldiers, Mr. Chhang and a group of fellow passengers were driven out of the capital and dropped close to the border. There, they changed back into civilian clothes and, under the driver’s guidance, started to cross the no man’s land toward the border at night, remaining immobile during the day, always careful to avoid landmines and the cadavers of those who had failed to make it over.
The journey took several nights. Once all had crossed, the driver took his paying clients to a Thai border post. He told Mr. Chhang he should hide and cross secretly at 3 am, when the Thai guard stepped down from his watchtower to relieve himself. Mr. Chhang followed his directives, starting to move as soon as the guard climbed down to ground level. “Then my shirt got caught in the barbed wire,” he said. “Should I tear it or take it off?” he asked himself. “I only had one shirt.” Eventually, he untangled himself and made his way across the border.
Upon reaching the Khao-I-Dang Holding Center refugee camp, Mr. Chhang discretely asked the help of church organizations, as he had been instructed.
The camp was overseen by the Thai Ministry of Interior and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. For the next several years he would live at Khao-I-Dang alongside a group of other men who had also entered the camp “illegally” because they had not registered with and paid Thai military officials at the border. The men hid in a well under an empty house whenever Thai soldiers patrolled, and survived due to support from church organizations. “There were weeks without food,” he recalled. Still, the “illegals” were accepted at schools and in training programs, both of which Mr. Chhang took advantage of.
“Whoever said that Khao-I-Dang was a “Hilton” camp, it [shows a] lack of respect for the refugees who had already suffered the genocide,” he said. “Refugee camps in Thailand were no Hilton hotels. It was hell.”
Mr. Chhang’s time in limbo in Khao-I-Dang lasted longer than the Khmer Rouge regime. “It was the continuation of a nightmare: You wake up and you’re in a nightmare, and you wake up again and you still are in the nightmare,” he said.
Finally, in 1985, Mr. Chhang obtained legal immigrant status from the U.S. and was sent to a camp in the Philippines for orientation and training.
“[I]t was heaven,” he said. “You can’t imagine the feeling of being a person again, respected as a person, with someone you can call friends.
“It was our first clean water for showering…a shelter with a roof that had never leaked…a proper sewage system,” he said, plus fresh food and even clothes for the children. “In the Philippines…you could feel freedom, you could define your future.
“The Filipinos have the habit of caring for other people whether they are poor, whether they have problems…They share their portion of potatoes or long beans,” Mr. Chhang said. He estimates there were 100,000 Cambodians in the camp, and said that the mini Angkorian monuments they had built remain on the site today.
At the camp, Filipino teachers prepared the refugees for their future lives in North America. In addition to learning basic information on U.S. laws and regulations, the work and culture orientation process included everything from how to use washing machines and air conditioners, to how to apply for work and prepare for job interviews. “I even learned to swear,” Mr. Chhang said. The future immigrants were also made aware of the discrimination and prejudice they would likely experience in the U.S.
Read Youk Chhang Part 4: A New Life — And a Pledge to Remember.