As smoke from nearby fires rolled over her Hillsboro home this past summer, Kanchana Mam was reminded of an even more terrifying time in her life 45 years ago – in Cambodia.
She was 16 when she narrowly escaped the threat of death at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. Her father, a politician, had the foresight to plan an escape into Thailand just two weeks before the insurgents overtook the capital city of Phnom Penh.
They and two other families of refugees from Southeast Asia found themselves on the other side of the world in 1975, in a little Oregon town called Lebanon. They were brought here under a refugee resettlement program, with sponsorship from the local Bethlehem Lutheran and Mennonite Churches.
A number of other local churches also assisted with the program: Our Saviour’s Lutheran, First United Methodist, First United Presbyterian, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and Sweet Home’s Fir Lawn Lutheran.
The brutal Khmer Rouge regime, led by Marxist leader Pol Pot, was in power from 1975-79, and claimed the lives of some 2 million people. The Khmer Rouge’s goal was to take Cambodia back to an agrarian society such as existed in the Middle Ages, forcing millions of people from the cities to work on communal farms in the countryside.
Chhiet Mao, another refugee to Lebanon, would say the tipping point that led to the infamous “Killing Fields” of Cambodia was when the United States bombed the Ho Chi Minh trail in his country in 1969.
The numbers of the communist-led Khmer Rouge grew, bombing their way through the forested curtains of Cambodia until reaching Phnom Penh, the capital, in 1975.
“Life was just horrible; lots of guns, bombs and rockets,” Kanchana said. “Our home (in Siem Reap) was bombed just one day after we escaped.”
Her family made it into Thailand the day following the communist takeover of Phnom Penh. Six months later, nine individuals of the Mam family, including Kanchana’s siblings, father, uncle, cousins and grandmother, arrived in Lebanon, in October 1975. Arriving with them was another family, the Kylys, who also fled to Thailand from Laos.
“It was one of those stories where (my parents) went at the dead of the night and sort of just pretended that they were Thai,” said DeL’Aurore Kyly, who was 1 year old when she arrived in Lebanon with her parents.
About two months later, a third family arrived, Chhay Mao with his daughter, Nouma, and son, Chhiet.
The refugees and their children, now American citizens, recalled those last days in Cambodia and their first experiences living in the United States. They are now grown, with their own families, and some have even returned to Cambodia to visit or help rebuild the country they left behind……..