The Khmer Rouge massacred 12 members of her family. This is what she did next

Hong was 25 years old when 12 members of her family were killed by the Khmer Rouge in 1977.

Like many of the two million Cambodians massacred by the brutal Marxist regime in the late 1970s, her family was duped into believing they were being moved to a better village.

Instead, they were stripped of their clothing and bludgeoned to death. Their bodies were dumped in a deep well.

Hong only learned of their fate when the clothes of the dead were paraded through her village in Kampong Cham Province, north of the capital Phnom Penh.

She recognised her parents’, brothers’ and sisters’ garments. Only one of her siblings survived.

Hong was married to an educated man, a graduate in engineering, and she feared he too would be killed. He fled to the Thai border and eventually she built up the courage to join him.

Survival was her only thought as she trekked for days with her four children, aged eight, six, four and two, in tow while dodging landmines and Pol Pot’s men.

They negotiated for a place at a refugee camp and eventually arrived safely at the Thai-Cambodia border.

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Hong outside the orphange she built

On October 1, 1981, her family boarded a flight to the United States. Two sponsors, a Cambodian in Utah and a Christian man in California, had offered Hong’s family a fresh start.

“I was throwing up on the plane, I was so scared,” Hong recalled.

First, she found work picking strawberries and cleaning houses in San Jose, California, and began to adjust to her strange new world.

“I was too young with four children. I felt so happy I got to the United States, it was a good life,” Hong said.

Later she built up a successful business importing Cambodian fish and fruit to America. Her children grew up and started their own families. From the outside it seemed, at last, Hong had found peace.

But there was one thing she found impossible to forget – she still didn’t know who had killed her father, mother, brothers and sisters.

“I didn’t want to come back here to Cambodia but I needed to know,” she said.

Hong was also painfully aware of how much her country was still suffering. After watching a film about children living in poverty in Cambodia she decided she needed to do something to help.

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Massage train
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Reading time outside
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Studying
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The children could not get enough of YouTube cartoons

In 2007, with the help of friends in the country, she founded an orphanage to give children in the remote countryside of Siem Reap province food, shelter and education.

Then, in 2009, Hong left her four adult children, grandchildren, her now ex-husband and her comfortable life in the U.S. behind and returned to Cambodia to run the orphanage and seek answers about her family’s massacre.

With her own money and no sponsorship she currently feeds, clothes and educates 25 children who were once living below the poverty line.

Phanet, 14, ate nothing but plain rice and sugar when he lived with his grandmother. “He was very small and now he’s grown,” says Hong as she proudly introduced me to a smiling young man.

“I like it here because I can grow up and get a job to help my family,” he told me.  

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‘Baymax’ was a friend to all the animals

Using the skills she learned in the US, Hong teaches the children to be business savvy.

The girls pick mangoes from the trees in the dusty yard and turn them into delicious iced smoothies which they sell to passing motorists at their makeshift stall outside the orphanage.

The boys take care of the goats, pigs and chickens and learn to ride mopeds.

All the children, aged 6-22, call her “Ma” and show the utmost respect. They are aspirational and speak of one-day becoming pilots, policemen, chefs and photographers.

One of Hong’s ambitions for the children is that they all speak English fluently so that one day they can work in government and help their country. Volunteers from around the world drop by for weeks or months at a time to teach the children English and computer skills.

I spent eight days at the orphanage, where I interviewed Hong. She is deaf in one ear and – despite almost 30 years living in the US – speaks little English herself.

Hong could have stayed away from Cambodia and its painful memories. But she returned. She eventually found out who killed her family and out of all the misery, a bright future for dozens of children has emerged.

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Waving Cambodia’s flag

 

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