SAN JOSE, California — Reth Sam and his mother last saw one another in Khao-I-Dang refugee camp over 40 years ago. Both believed the other had perished, but after watching a YouTube video about his aunt, Reth Sam and his family were able to track down his mother and reunite in San Jose, California.
Reth Sam was just a teenager in the late 1970’s fighting to survive the chaos and trauma of the Khmer Rouge labor camps in Cambodia. Ultimately, he lost all seven younger siblings and father to torture, starvation or illness. Reth Sam believed that he was one of the only surviving members of his family after being twice separated from his mother.
The Khmer Rouge regime mercilessly ruled Cambodia, killing an estimated 2 million people — one of the worst genocides of the 20th century. As a result of this dark time, family separation was just one of the grim realities that surviving Cambodians had to endure after escaping the Khmer Rouge.
For 56-year-old Cambodian refugee, Reth Sam, now living in Virginia, these heart-wrenching memories were the last agonizing vestiges of family history that he had to cling to.
“My mother and I were separated twice; once during the Khmer Rouge era when my mother sent me to live with my aunt on my father’s side — she thought that I would be safer with her. Then we were separated again in Khao-I-Dang after being reunited in the camps,” recalls Reth Sam.
In the confusion of transitioning within the Thai refugee camp to their respective destinations, Reth Sam and his mother, Sivatha Mam would lose each other amongst the tens of thousands of refugees who’d just journeyed across the landmine-filled rice fields and jungles of northwestern Cambodia across the border into neighboring Thailand. Since they arrived at Khao-I-Dang Refugee Camp at different times, mother and son were assigned to different sections of the camp.
“I remember understanding that we were being accepted as refugees to countries like Australia, France and America. Being separated from my mother then, I wasn’t sure how I’d find her again or where I would even start looking. It felt like an impossible task,” said Reth Sam.
Reth Sam would immigrate to America with the paternal aunt who raised him, go on to settle in Virginia, marry and have two children of his own; son, Ritha and daughter, Rithany. He focused on his family and creating memories to fill the excruciating void and lasting trauma that so many Cambodians who’ve survived the Khmer Rouge struggle with to this day.
And then, on January 27, 2021, Reth Sam watched a YouTube video that would forever change his life.
Reth Sam showed his wife, Bopha, the YouTube video and immediately discussed what they should do. He and his wife met in America and married in 1989, so she didn’t have any personal recollection of her husband’s family in Cambodia. Both Reth and his wife had been searching for closure regarding his mother’s whereabouts and, after stumbling onto this video, were now almost certain that the woman in the video was his aunt. FULL STORY (very moving)