Channy by
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(184 Stories)

Prompted By Refugees

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Ankgor Wat, the temples most associated with Cambodia

At the company I worked for in 2007, my cubicle was catty-corner to the systems engineering group. Nearest me was a soft spoken, extremely beautiful Asian woman named Channy. While we seemed to have little in common, something resonated between us that I couldn’t explain. We became friendly over the course of a few months.

"Then ... I can tell you," Channy said. "As a teenager, I survived the Killing Fields of Cambodia under the Kmer Rouge."

One quiet Friday afternoon, a few months after we had met, Channy came to my cubicle and asked, “Marian, are you Jewish?” “Yes,” I replied.

“Did you lose any family in the Holocaust?”

“Not any immediate family, but we assume my most of my parents’ relatives perished, except for one family who came out of Romania and one distant cousin who got out of Ukraine and went to Israel.”

“Then you will understand and I can tell you,” Channy said. “As a teenager, I survived the Killing Fields of Cambodia under the Kmer Rouge.”

Channy then related that her family was ethnically Chinese, though having lived in Cambodia for generations. Their ethnicity, and her father’s business success, made them targets for labor and re-education. They were sent to work camps, where they nearly starved, and lost everything. After the Kmer Rouge were defeated, the family was sponsored by a Christian church group in Nebraska, and Channy resumed her interrupted education, graduating from college with honors. She explained that, for all those years, she hadn’t been able to talk with anyone about the horrific time she endured, and wanted to first talk with someone who had been touched by genocide, however distantly.

I listened closely, inviting Channy to talk whenever she needed to, but she did not mention her trauma again. A few years later, Channy was laid off, to the consternation of most in the company, who respected her talents and work ethic. I lost touch with her.

About two years ago, during the depths of the pandemic, I received an email from the local Jewish Family Services organization about a Zoom talk. Channy would be presenting an hour-long discussion of her experiences in Cambodia as part of a set of programs to educate the younger generations about the Holocaust and about genocide in general. It turned out that after being laid off, Channy changed careers and began marketing Cambodian sauces adapted from her family’s recipes, which led to a successful business. She then wrote a book about the Killing Fields era and what her family endured. Before the pandemic, she had been going to high school classes to educate the students about what happened to her.

The talk Channy gave was bone-chilling in its terrible details. This story can’t do justice to her descriptions of walking through soggy rice fields for hours in the monsoons, doing back-breaking labor, then walking back to a hut, with some rice to eat if she was lucky. At least the family remained together for a lot of this time, and Channy’s mother was a strong influence in helping them to survive. Channy, her parents, and three of her four siblings made it through. The youngest brother died, although she wouldn’t say how.

Hearing such stories, it seems that each generation has refugees from terror, and it was maddening that no one could stop what happened to Channy, although wonderful people helped her here in America. A small consolation was that, on a quiet Friday, I could help start a healing process for Channy by listening to her story.

Profile photo of Marian Marian
I have recently retired from a marketing and technical writing and editing career and am thoroughly enjoying writing for myself and others.


Characterizations: moving, well written

Comments

  1. Khati Hendry says:

    Thanks for this touching story. It was good that you could provide some support, and probably good that you could share your story as well. There is much trauma that we just hold inside, with no clear way to process it. The Killing Fields, and the Holocaust, are so evil as to be literally unthinkable—and yet they happened and continue in various genocides. It sounds as if Channy went on to be a real leader and healer—what an inspiration.

  2. Laurie Levy says:

    Your retelling of Channy’s story is so important Marian. I’m glad she found a way to share it. When people don’t know the past (sadly many Americans seem to be ignorant of history), they are doomed to repeat it.

  3. Suzy says:

    Wow, what a story! Interesting that Channy felt comfortable telling you about her horrifying experiences because you had been touched, even if distantly, by the Holocaust. Did you make any effort to contact her after you watched her zoom talk?

    • Marian says:

      Yes, Suzy, I tried contacting her through LinkedIn and the messaging on the Zoom, but never heard back. I know she is probably very busy and in demand, and lots of people are hearing her story.

  4. This was a powerful story. I especially like the way you bookended the deeper narrative with your opening and closing, returning at the end to that same conversation when this quiet young woman first approached you and opened up to you. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Betsy Pfau says:

    Thank you for sharing this story with us, Mare. Channy held this all in until she met you, and as a Jewish person, she knew that you could relate to her story. You gave her the shoulder she needed at that moment. That was a unique gift. How marvelous that she then channeled her experience in a way that let her educate the community and in some small way, try to heal. She sounds like an incredible person. You provided an outlet when she needed it. That was a blessing.

    • Marian says:

      I found it interesting when I thought back about Channy’s years at the company, how, even though others didn’t know about what happened to her, to a person they liked and respected her, and were as outraged as I when she was laid off. Who knew that would turn into an opportunity? I did feel blessed to be able to be there when she needed a safe person to confide in.

  6. Marian, what a beautifully written and poignant piece.
    .
    And how moving to hear how you helped Channy find her voice, and listened to the story she had to tell.

  7. Dave Ventre says:

    The long sick history of mass murder really sours me on humanity. And now I see, here, the normalization of Neo-Nazis and other sick fu*ks who want to give it yet another shot.

    As an aside, if you search Amazon for “Cambodian sauce,” Channy’s company is the first hit. Google their name and there on their web site is a picture of Channy. You did not exaggerate her beauty at all!

    • Marian says:

      I’m glad to know that Channy’s company is getting the attention it deserves. And Cambodian food is delicious, by the way. There are restaurants in San Francisco and Oakland where people can try it (I don’t know about the east coast). If you think Channy is gorgeous, her daughter is even more beautiful, if that’s possible, with the height of her Swiss father and Channy’s face.

  8. Kathy Porter says:

    This is such a moving story. It sounds as if your willingness to listen to her was an important part of her journey to being able to speak publicly of what had happened to her family. Teaching high school students about history — all of it — is so very important.

  9. You told this enlightening story with great feeling and clarity! I watched as Cambodian despot Pol Pot rose out of CIA support during the Vietnam era and with interest as an exhausted Vietnamese army turned immediately toward Cambodia after they had banished the Americans and wiped out the Khmer Rouge. I have a neighbor who, as a young child, escaped Cambodia into the hazardous borderland with Thailand and her stories resonate with Channy’s horror story. A very effective comparison with the Holocaust. Thanks.

    • Marian says:

      Thank you, Charles. I have not been to Cambodia but have visited Thailand, and the heat and atmosphere of the landscape replayed in my mind when I listened to Channy. Tomorrow (4/27) is Holocaust Remembrance Day, and this one is especially important because of what is going on in our country and the world.

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