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Surviving as a refugee

by Var Hong Ashe
Var Hong Ashe’s experience as a refugee began in 1975 when she escaped from Cambodia to Thailand with her two daughters. They spent months on the run, through jungles infested with landmines and mantraps, risking rape, robbery and attack by wild animals. At the time they had no idea that this tortuous and dangerous journey was only one of many hardships they were to suffer.

After four years of slavery and starvation under the Khmer Rouge, in constant fear for our lives, it was like a dream come true to be met at the border by relief workers. I felt even safer when we were taken to a refugee camp and provided with basic food and shelter. Our euphoria soon vanished, however, giving way to excruciating uncertainty. Would we be allowed to stay? The thought of being sent back was more than we could bear.

Despite the efforts of humanitarian organisations, life in the camp was tough, and in one way or another we all suffered physically and psychologically. We had to cope with a scarcity of food and water, poor sanitation, overcrowding, lack of privacy, physical threats, boredom and emotional difficulties.

Women like myself were concerned for our children’s welfare. Children in the camps were malnourished and prone to skin diseases because of the poor hygiene. They received no proper education and consequently suffered from chronic boredom.

Many men turned aggressive under the pressures of joblessness, loss of dignity and identity, and bad living conditions. Some took mistresses, triggering family quarrels or battering. Some turned to alcohol. This led many of their wives to feel resignation, despair, aggression and depression. Here the counselling provided by humanitarian organisations proved invaluable.

Some women, who had no earning capacity or who had children and/or parents to support, resorted to prostitution as a means of supplementing their food supply.

There were, of course, some capable, innovative women who coped by working in the camp as teachers, hairdressers, cooks and dressmakers. Some of the more courageous ones even risked being shot or raped by the guards, sneaking out and smuggling goods into the camp.

The threat of being forced to return to Cambodia was always on my mind. The group of refugees I was in had been categorised by the Thai authorities as illegal immigrants. Luckily, I fell ill and was transferred with my children to another camp for treatment. Mean-while, the rest of my group was sent back. Many subsequently died from mine injuries, starvation or malaria.

Fearing we would suffer the same fate, we spent the rest of our time hiding in the new camp.

Thanks to the outstanding efforts of several relief workers, who did their best to assist us in spite of obvious conflicts between political considerations and humanity, my daughters and I were eventually accepted for resettlement in the United Kingdom. I know I owe them a lot for our survival.

Arriving in the UK in 1979 did not spell the end of our problems. We received a warm welcome from the local community, and it was a relief to see the girls receiving a proper education, but settling down and integrating into this new society involved adapting to the food, climate and life style. The quality of our life was better, but I was not prepared for the xenophobia I encountered: “Go away, we don’t want you here,” I was told by one woman. I was mortified.

My years as a refugee have been dogged by insecurity and recurrent nightmares. I do not think that I have ever felt whole again, though life has more or less returned to normal. However, I have come to accept that problems and suffering are a part of human life. The only way I can survive is to have a positive attitude, rely on my faith and carry on.

Var Hong Ashe
Var Hong Ashe is the author of the best-selling book From Phnom Penh to Paradise.

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