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Decades Later, Cambodian Refugees in Illinois Still Face Difficult Odds

Dec. 1, 2008 – She was 10 years old chopping wood with her father, and vividly remembers how difficult it was to lift the axe with her tiny twig-like arms and crash down on the log, slicing it into pieces.

"When I was small, I would follow my father everywhere: sawing logs, farming and gardening. It was hard work, but we would sell that wood to buy rice for our family," said Tey Mouen.

One day when she and her father returned to their family farm in Cambodia after a long day of work, they saw Khmer Rouge soldiers torturing her mother and brother. They tortured her mother because she would not tell them where Mouen and her father had gone.

Mouen said between sobs, "They were beating them to death with a stick."

Mouen said her father was a Cambodian soldier and the rebel Khmer soldiers saw him as a threat to their new regime and wanted him dead. 

After this moment, her life was never the same.

Watch Lea Erwin's interview with Tey Mouen and Chhay Chheouth. Click here to watch on a larger screen.

Mouen, 44, is a Cambodian refugee and rarely speaks about the traumatic events she witnessed that day.

She now lives in Albany Park, Ill., in a largely Cambodian community. She has anxiety issues coupled with memory loss, mental and emotional problems due to traumatic memories from the past, but also current problems, such as diabetes. Thirty years after two million Cambodians were murdered in the Killing Fields, Cambodian refugees living in the U.S. still suffer.

After the Vietnam war ended in 1975 and U.S. troops began to leave, a communist force influenced by the teachings of Mao Tse Tung called the Khmer Rouge swept through the country and seized control of Cambodia.

Unlike the Holocaust, where most people know about the six million Jews killed in Nazi concentration camps, the story of the two million Cambodians tortured, beaten, and murdered by the Khmer Rouge is not as publicized. 

The Khmer Rouge ravaged Cambodia with intent of ridding the country of older generations and building a new and better country with no Cambodians. They forced city-dwellers to the countryside and killed anyone who might pose a threat to their ideals, such as intellectuals, religious leaders and professionals.

"It's never going to erase for us, we are never going to get over it; we pass it on to our children," said Kathy Reun, family strengthening coordinator at the Cambodian Association of Illinois, wrapping her arms around Mouen while she wept.

In 1978 and 1979, like thousands of other Cambodians, Mouen and her family fled to nearby Thailand, where they were among 350,000 refugees in camps.

For three years, Mouen lived with her father and brother in poverty-stricken conditions, eating rotten fish, sleeping on dirt beds and worrying about being raped by Thai soldiers.

After Thailand she was transferred to refugee camps in the Philippines, where she lived for one year until she was sponsored by an American who brought her to the U.S. to live with her stepsister in Chicago.

Mouen said she never wants to go back to Cambodia, not even to visit.

"It's too sad, even today I don't want to see the sadness of Cambodia. There is too much sorrow there," said Mouen.

During her time at the refugee camps, her father re-married and had three children, and later joined Mouen in Chicago. He died of natural causes in 2002.

Chhay Chheouth, 51, is a friend of Mouen's and a Cambodian refugee, and she recently found out she also has diabetes. She had a difficult time telling her story and often stopped amid tears.

Chheouth was 25 years old during the Killing Fields and also witnessed her family's murder. She said her mother, father and two older brothers were killed, leaving her the only one left.

Pregnant and scared, she went to a Thai refugee camp and lived there for four years. During that time she had two children and often went hungry, trying to feed them and herself.

"I was so skinny, my knee was bigger than my head," said Chheouth. 

Though they survived the camps and moved to other countries, Cambodians continue to struggle with daily living, often confronted by language barriers, inadequate housing and lack of healthcare, said Ruen.

"Four out of 10 women in our women's group have diabetes," said Reun, who holds a weekly meeting for Cambodian women refugees, providing exercise and health education.

Ruen added that many of these refugees suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and lack of education about healthy living; this, accompanied by stress and depression, makes them more susceptible to diabetes.

Forty-five percent of Cambodians surveyed in a 2003 Connecticut health information survey self-reported that they had symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the Department of Human Services. 

Sarouen Souen, family health coordinator at the Cambodian Association of Illinois said, "It's really hard for them to seek counseling because of the language, because they don't want to share the experience. It's a flashback, and too much for them." 

Today, Mouen lives by herself in Albany Park; her five children live with their father. The eldest boy, 24, serves in the U.S. military, her next eldest son is unemployed and uneducated at age 20. She also has one girl, 18, and two twin boys, 16. 

"[Mouen's] rent is too high and her income doesn't match. She receives SSI [disability money from the government], but that is not enough for gas and rent," said Reun.

Ruen said 80 percent of Cambodians are uneducated and, unlike the Chinese, there are few Cambodian restaurants and stores to work at, so most work in factories.

Mouen worries mostly about her son in the military. She said he currently serves in Iraq and last year nearly died in a bomb explosion. He lost hearing in one ear and has permanent scars all over his body.

As Mouen worries about her son in Iraq, she mourns the family she lost in Cambodia.

"I will never forget what happened to my family, but I am happy to be here in the U.S.," said Mouen.

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