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Escape on the Mekong: I wanted to make the same journey in reverse, without fear.

WHEN I WAS 22 DAYS OLD, my mom cradled me gently as we drifted along the Mekong River. It was the evening of Cambodian New Year. The Khmer Rouge soldiers were drunk, making it the perfect night for our family to escape. My dad made a small raft that stayed afloat long enough for us to reach Laos. From Laos we found our way to Thailand, where we lived in a refugee camp. Three years later, we were sent to a reprocessing center in the Philippines. Finally, after six months, we were approved for resettlement to the U.S.


Not all of my family members survived the genocide in Cambodia. Wounds from the past still haunt my parents. Traces of the labor camp and the refugee camp persist in our lives to this day, sometimes through our health problems and other times through nightmares and unexplainable dreams.

When I was about 10 years old, I often woke up in the middle of the night to my father's screams. He was having a nightmare again. Maybe it was of the time he was chased through the jungle with bullets streaming past him, or maybe of the time he watched his friends die. I never found out exactly--I was always too afraid to ask. My siblings were soundly asleep next to me. I would curl up into a little ball on my corner of the bed and pull the covers over my head.

Sometimes the next day, my father would take a morning off work and also take me out of school. In his little blue hoopty, we would go to the welfare office, the DMV or the INS office. I would help my father by translating application forms and instructions. By the time we got home, I had to rush to get the rice cooking. My father would leave for his night shift after my mom, who was a seamstress in a sweatshop, came home.

I found that I actually missed those days, as our family's problems got worse into my twenties. For the last two years, we've struggled to hold on to our house in California, which was cited by the city for housing code violations that have cost us hundreds of thousands of dollars to fix. I had to manage the construction project that dragged us back to dealing with endless bureaucracies and the constant fear of losing the only home we've had. I kept wondering if I was making the right decisions, just like when I was younger, wondering if I was translating correctly for my father.

Exhausted and dizzy, I felt my spirit breaking. In the midst of chaos and stress, I had to ask myself, "Am I grounded or am I groundless? Why is everything around me falling apart, crumbling, no matter what?" As I learned from rebuilding my family's home, when the foundation can no longer hold up a house, it must be reconstructed.

With freshly opened wounds and sleepless nights, I knew I needed to be on a path of healing. My spirit felt burnt to the ground. I decided I had to take a leap of faith. This led me to the difficult decision of leaving my family to go organize domestic workers in Asia for a year.

I wanted to return to my native country, a country I left almost as soon as I took my first breath, a country where my father was tortured and wounded. I wanted to follow that route again, this time working my way back in reverse, beginning my experience in the Philippines and eventually arriving in Cambodia.

As I write this, I am working with migrant domestic workers and their families in Asia, who are dealing with many abuses and rights violations, arising from class, gender and race-related vulnerabilities. With the exception of Hong Kong, domestic workers are not allowed to unionize in many regions of Asia because theirs is not recognized as real work. We are organizing in preparation for the Global Forum on Migration and Development in Belgium. Women, with our multiple roles as mothers, daughters, wives and wage earners, are calling for an end to all forms of discrimination against women and for our work to be valued and recognized.

I want to create a small disturbance on the Mekong and smile at the ripples.

Lian Cheun is working with the Migrant Forum in Asia and the Asian Migrant Center.
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Author:Cheun, Lian
Publication:Colorlines Magazine
Date:Jul 1, 2007
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