2010 - Yenly Thach

Excerpts from a blog Yenly wrote during her internship experience in Cambodia. 

If you were to ask me how life was like growing up in a refugee camp, I wouldn’t be able to truly explain in one sentence the real meaning of it or to have you understand how a childhood was taken away. To be honest, I couldn’t even express it in a way that allows you to truly understand what life was like, unless you were there. Besides, I was too naive and innocent to understand what a refugee camp was or violence meant back in those days. 

Today, I met with two former child refugees through my tutor. They are in their last year of undergraduate studies. On this Saturday morning, they planned to go to the library after our interviews to study. I can see how hard they have had to work to get where they are today….  

It was not easy to break the ice of silence to talk about what it was like growing up in a refugee camp with other child refugees. Once, I added my own experiences here and there between questions, little by little, they started to become more at ease with me. I found out that all three of us had lived in Site II camp along the Thai-Cambodian border. Since we were too young to remember how we looked then, especially moving around from camp to camp at different times, we didn’t know if we had ever met before today. However, we all remember the structure of the camp and our own situations there. 

The first young lady shared with me what she remembered of her childhood in the camp. “Do you remember all those bombings and houses burning down? I remember it very well, in fact, I still have nightmares from it." We started to exchange stories of what we remembered—good and bad—it all came out. 

I told them about a time when I responded to a soccer coach's question as to why I was so fast on the field. “You have played soccer in the US?” The two former child refugees were amazed and curious to hear that girls play sports. I continued, “I told my coach that I am used to running and I eat a lot of rice, which is why I am so fast.” The three of us laughed as if it was the funniest thing we had ever heard. One of the girls added, “We are used to running from usual bombings, shootings and even land mines. So we gotta be fast in order to survive.” We understood each other. We could all add similar experiences or finish each other's sentences. I felt a strong connection and new friendship bonds being formed with these girls through our shared experiences. 

We laughed throughout the stories that we shared. We cried, too, but they were tears of joy. Although most people would agree that growing up in a violent situation is neither safe nor high quality for a child's development, to us, these were the most memorable years of our lives. Ironically, at times, it seemed so peaceful in the camp. Nonetheless, we couldn’t explain why many years later, nightmares continue to haunt us from the camp. The three of us were born and grew up in the camp until we were 6 to 8 years old. At those ages, we didn’t worry much about life. We were happy to get some food in our stomachs and to be free to run around. It didn't matter if the field was the size of a football field or 6 meters of land to run around, we just wanted to play, just like any child would. 

Of course, if you asked our parents, the story would be different. They remember everything especially those bad experiences. Now as well-educated university students, we look at the situation differently and are closer to our parents’ perspectives. We couldn’t believe that we lived through so much fighting, bombing, shooting and screaming at nights. We lived in a place where almost all human rights were violated. Life in the camp among the refugees was socially constructed such that violent behavior was accepted as part of our daily routine. 

My two new friends are planning to graduate from college this June and I am completing my Master's degree. Not too many former refugees who were born and spent most of their childhood in a camp end up with such a success story. I am very pleased with these two young ladies' choices in life. No one can take away our experiences and memories of those years. Yet, we will always look back and thank God that we have made it this far, and continue to live life as if it’s our last day because of what we learned in the camp.

© Richard Payne 2016