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
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
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
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.