In April 1975, Cambodia's political structure transformed drastically, causing turmoil and devastation. The Communists took control of and turned the entire country into an agrarian society. People were forced to leave their city lifestyles and work in rice fields. All modern and civilized economic infrastructure and school systems were closed and all religious practices were prohibited. Children as young as four weeks old were placed in primitive children's centers without adequate adult supervision or care. Children who were not old enough to work in the fields were often used to babysit the younger ones, while both parents were assigned to work in different but equally hard labor settings. Like everyone else, I was separated from my parents and was put to work in remote labor camps. It was beyond what one could imagine. While enduring constant hard labor with limited food and improper nutrition, everyone in my village suffered exhaustion and looked like a walking skeleton, skinny and pale. Complaining about or mentioning lack of food or improper nutrition was strictly prohibited and was often referred to as actions against the Communist ideology, which would lead to prosecution.
In 1977, while Cambodia remained under the absolute control of the Communist regime, I married my wife Chhoeun Chhum. It was during this time, when Cambodia was hidden from the world, that many people died of starvation, forced labor, and persecution for having a political connection to the former regime. People who had held any positions in the former government, had attended higher education or had been wealthy had to keep these things secret to avoid persecution. For three years, eight months and twenty days under the Communist rule, an estimated two to three million people died by execution, starvation, or illness. The death toll included my mother, maternal grandparents, an uncle, and four aunts.
On January 7, 1979, Cambodia was pronounced free from the brutal and lawless Communist regime. Having survived the turmoil and fearing the return of the Communist regime, my wife and I decided to leave Cambodia to live along the border of Cambodia and Thailand. There I learned that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had opened a camp in Thailand that was accepting refugees who had escaped from Cambodia. After traversing through the jungle and crossing an area with landmines along the border of Cambodia and Thailand, my wife and I safely arrived at the Khao-I-Dang Refugee Camp in Thailand in November of 1979. We lived there for five years. While at the camp, I reunited with my father and three of my younger siblings.
In the camp, food, shelter, and other daily necessities were provided by the UNHCR. There, I had two children, who were born in 1980 and 1982. Feeling uncertain about my children's future and fearing that my family would be sent back to Cambodia, I began seeking resettlement in another country. In November of 1983, the United States accepted my resettlement request and transferred my family to the Philippines Refugee Camp (PRPC) in the Philippines. While we were in the PRPC, my family spent approximately seven months learning basic English and adaptation skills before arriving in the United States. During our stay in the PRPC, my wife became pregnant with our third child.
On August 3, 1984, my family arrived to the United States: Rochester, Minnesota. We stayed in Rochester for two months, during which time our third child was born. We then moved to Stockton, California in October of 1984. In Stockton, I aquired a job as a bilingual school assistant and went to school myself to pursue higher education. In 1987, I received news from another surviving brother, who had been separated from my family since 1975. In 1994, I graduated with a master's degree from California State University, Stanislaus and began my career with the U.S. Department of State in 1996.
Today, I work at the State Department's Los Angeles Passport Agency. I am proud to be part of the State Department's family -- an opportunity that is almost non-existent for foreign-born citizens in most parts of the world. Also, I am proud to be the first member of my family in generations to have the opportunity to join the government workforce.
I am most proud of my own family. I have been married for 34 years and have five adult children, one of whom graduated with a master's degree, two with bachelor degrees, and two currently attend college. I also have two granddaughters and a grandson. My family and I are happy with our new life in the United States. With strong determination, hard work and commitment, my wife and I have attained the American dream, and most importantly, the dream for our children's future.
Editor's Note: This blog is one of a series of individual stories by former refugees who are now working for the State Department. The series is part of the State Department's ongoing effort to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Refugee Convention and in honor of World Refugee Day on June 20. Each story reflects an individual's experience and does not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. government.Become a fan of the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration on Facebook.