On Being a Refugee

When we meet someone for the first time one of the first questions we often ask is "Where are you from?" That simple little question has never seemed simple to me. How do I explain that while I was not born in New Zealand, New Zealand is the country I identify with - and that I can't really identify with the country I was born in or the people that live there?

Although ethnically Chinese, I was born in Cambodia where several generations of my family have lived.

My family all worked hard and their children studied hard. My father was the captain of the military police in Battambang and my mother ran a café.

Shortly after I was born, while my mother was pregnant with my brother, Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia. In three years they slaughtered over two million people starting with the middle class and educated people. Pol Pot and his Communist cohorts were determined to take Cambodia back to Year Zero where everyone would be peasant farmers.

During this time my family was separated. My father went off to fight. Like most of those who went with him, he never returned. My mother, aunty, brother and I were sent to backbreaking labour in the fields. I was nearly two years old and my brother just under a year. Too young to be of any use, we were left to sit around on our own without food. We were too frightened to do anything else!

My auntie, mother, brother and I stuck together. I was meant to pretend to be my auntie's daughter so we wouldn't be separated. All our photos, our jewellery (and even the memories of the life we had lived) had to be hidden or destroyed. It was especially important to hide photos of my father and immediate family, as these would quickly give us away as people who were not from farming/peasant backgrounds, resulting in instant death to us all.

One day the soldiers, suspicious of my mother's soft hands and unweathered skin, tested her by making her plant rice in a huge paddock. It would prove to them that she truly was a farmer if she could do the whole field in a day.

Having never planted rice in her life, she was absolutely terrified. How could she possibly complete this task when everybody knew even experienced farmers would take more than a day to plant a whole field alone? She cried out to God for help and spent the day working feverishly hard. To her amazement she was able to complete the task and saved us all from certain execution. To this day she wonders at the miracle that saved us all.

We eventually escaped with a ragtag group of others by hiking for weeks over the mountains and through the jungles into Thailand where there was a refugee camp set up for the survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime. How my mother did it with two children under five I will never know.

By this time my father had disappeared, probably dead somewhere with the countless others whom Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge were killing. We didn't realise it then, but for the rest of our lives we would never know what really happened to him.

Somehow we survived those years of starvation, although the malnourishment my brother and I suffered left us shorter than average for our usually stocky family. After a time in the refugee camp, we were selected to be relocated to the USA. But God had other ideas . . . .

My uncle, already living in New Zealand, was working with the refugee centre in Mangere. He arranged for us to join him there. My first memory of New Zealand is of eating a piece of cheese on the aeroplane (to this day I love cheese!).

My second memory is living with my family and other refugees from Cambodia in the Mangere Refugee camp. There were two simple rows of rooms with a communal toilet at either end of each block. I remember it was fun and the people were nice even though they jabbed us with lots of injections. I guess that was to protect us against diseases we may come in contact with and to protect others from the diseases which we had. (I still hate getting injections.)

While at the Mangere Refugee Camp, the teachers would take us on outings to primary schools and shops. They were getting us ready to live in Kiwi society.

After leaving Mangere Refugee camp we moved into a rented house in Mangere - a beautiful old colonial villa. The most vivid memory I have of that house is of Grandmum and Grandad (our Kiwi sponsors) coming over one day and furtively motioning for Mum and Auntie to follow them outside. We weren't allowed to go, they said, we were to stay in the locked bedroom and they would come back soon.

My heart was pumping a million beats a minute I was so scared. As they closed the door tears streamed down my face. Why were they taking Mum and Auntie away? A few minutes later they opened the door with huge grins on their faces. To my mother's shock, my brother and I were both crying, and she didn't understand why - neither did I at the time. It turned out that Grandad and Grandmum had brought us surprise presents - a doll and a bed for me and some cars and trucks for my brother. Grandad had made them out of wood. Both he and Grandmum are so good with their hands.

Eventually we got a home of our own in Manurewa and I settled into a primary school. Although I had a lot of good friends throughout my school life, there were hard times. I was sent to the junior class to learn with the little kids. It was very embarrassing and humiliating. Praise God I was a quick learner and that didn't last long.

I was teased constantly for my height (or lack or it) and being the shortest in the line I had to stand in the front of every single class photo. There were teachers who could never pronounce my name correctly. I felt out of place and that I never really fitted in.

For my mother - a 28 year old widow with two young children in an unfamiliar land with strange language, culture, people (and even food) - it must have been amazingly daunting. She worked long hours in a sewing factory and tried very hard to keep things together for the three of us.

As the oldest, it was my job to be the interpreter: the one who went to the bank and paid the bills at age eight. I even went to my own parent-teacher interviews and interpreted my teacher's comments to my mother. I explained all the letters that came in - including my detention letters from school.

I told my mother which letters to sign (or whether she should sign) and explained to her what everyone was saying. I was only a little girl but a lot was expected of me. At the time I resented it, but now I realise what a helpless and frustrating life it must have been for my mother. Only now, as I prepare to have my first child, do I realise and appreciate the sacrifices she has made for me.

Integrating into Kiwi culture was strange and hard but we were blessed with wonderful Kiwis who supported us in so many ways. As I was growing up Grandmum and Grandad were the most significant people in my life - they helped us get into school, found jobs for Mum and Auntie, found a house for us, taught us how to shop (no bargaining remember!), took us to the doctors, showed us where to pay the bills, fixed our roof, painted, gardened and so much more.

Church friends Auntie Ronnie and Uncle Peter babysat, taught us how to speak English, played with me and took Mum around to different functions. Each Sunday they would pick us up for church and pray with us. They made birthday cakes and even made my wedding cake! Aunty Eyre took us to my first movie, Annie, and fed me shepherds pie (I love shepherds pie!) and so many other goodies. Boy was she a good cook. She knitted jumpers in winter and leg warmers when they were 'cool'.

Nana Roberts, our neighbour, took us to shows and fairs and gave us train rides. With her we debated politics and played monopoly. "These are my grandchildren!" she would say proudly everywhere we went - leaving many people somewhat confused.

Some of these people have died now, but they were our lifeline in a world we didn't know or understand. They gave so much of themselves and their time to us. It is the many people like these who made New Zealand home to me.

Our church had a Girls Brigade and when I was little I loved attending with my friends from church. One day we had a party and were all supposed to bring a plate. Being a generous person I brought two plates - one for me and one for someone else.

When I got to the hall, I saw girls coming in with plates of food! Nobody told me my plate had to have food on it. I just wanted to shrink smaller than I already was. But the leader took my plates with an understanding smile and sent me to join my team - no one was the wiser - only next time I knew to bring food on my plate!

While I found acceptance at church, school was sometimes a different story. As one of only a few Asian kids in the school I was a target for torment and name-calling. Later as more Asians came to New Zealand old stereotypes surfaced. "All Asians are the same - they all have black hair and brown eyes."

Yes, Asians do have black hair and brown eyes, but we are all so different! We have different hair texture, facial features, socio-economic groups, languages, values, personalities . . . just like everyone else in New Zealand.

As I got older I realised that I couldn't really escape it. It wasn't just strangers, rude and racist people who said hurtful things, but people I knew and cared about did it too. "Not you Nay, you're one of us", usually followed a rude remark about Asians.

So I learned to be a little more vocal and opinionated rather than just ignoring the people or the comments: "Damn Asian drivers" - does my ethnic background have any effect on my driving? - and snide remarks: "Asians are taking over New Zealand" - how am I taking over New Zealand? And then there was the name-calling: 'Mongol', 'chink' and the supposedly funny racist jokes. They all hurt.

Uninformed racist stereotypes abound - 'rich Asians' is one. You only need to spend a day in Asia and see the millions of poor Asians living on less than a dollar a day to realise the fallacy of this statement - as do racist opinions: "She won't fit in", "She doesn't understand, she's Asian". At a job interview I was once told they needed a 'friendlier face'. Walls put up between me and them, all because I look different!

I remember the first day I truly left home to live in a university hostel. I had arrived early to set up and to get used to the neighbourhood, the people and the surroundings. As I sat in the lounge a pretty blonde came up to me and yelled at me very slowly "CAN YOU SPEAK ENGLISH?" I wasn't sure who to be more embarrassed for, her or me? How should I respond? Part of me felt like yelling back very slowly, saying something sarcastic (typically me) but I just replied sweetly with a somewhat perplexed look "Yes." (No point making enemies at this stage in my life).

It took me two hours to get everything done and by the end of my first day I was so lonely that I decided to go home for the weekend! That first day did not typify my university years thankfully, as I made many good friends who are truly dear to me to this day - even the blonde girl who first spoke to me!

As a child I was always drawn back to Cambodia the land of my birth, my people - people who looked like me. As a Christian this desire was to see God glorified in that country, to do something to contribute to God's kingdom. From an early age I proclaimed that I was going to be a missionary and a teacher. I have always had a heart for young people and especially people who have known hardship as I did.

After twenty years in New Zealand, including three years teaching in South Auckland, I left the place I now know as home to return to Cambodia and serve those who are called 'my people'. My husband Craig and I wanted to live amongst the poor people we were ministering to and so we chose to come with Servants to Asia's Urban Poor. We now live in a small wooden home on stilts in a poor slum community - a million miles away from our lovely house in New Zealand.

In Cambodia, Craig and I have started a ministry helping children orphaned by AIDS. Having known the sacrificial love of my mother, Project HALO (Hope, Assistance, Love for Orphans) aims to keep children within extended families and communities whenever possible. Sometimes that means recruiting Christian foster families or supporting teenager headed households. We are now working with nearly 400 children.

Coming into contact with people who are dying of AIDS everyday seems such a normal thing now. AIDS is so widespread here and everyone knows someone, or is related to someone, who has it. Part of the problem is the cultural practice - it is expected that a teenage boy will have his first sexual experience with a prostitute and that a husband will visit prostitutes.

Servants takes a preventative approach by running AIDS education classes and holding a clinic for prostitutes. A midwife, a Vietnamese helper and I run this weekly clinic to give out condoms and treat STDs with the help of an on-call missionary doctor for more difficult cases.

They say that for every 16 STDs treated, one case of AIDS is prevented. Many cases too are prevented because the girls are healthy and the men are being educated not to go to prostitutes.

Another aspect of the clinic's work is to persuade these girls to leave this lifestyle. Here, unlike the west, prostitution is a necessity for survival - a way to earn money to help your family when you have no other skills. Many of the girls we work with are from the countryside, illiterate and naive about what they are getting into. Some are sold into prostitution by relatives or even strangers and are trapped in a cycle of debt.

We work alongside another Christian group who have a safe house for girls at risk or those who want to leave prostitution. I help out at the safe house with income-generating crafts twice a week. It is amazing to see the girls whom I knew as prostitutes in our brothel area transformed into women who are smiling, hopeful, skilful, enthusiastic and overflowing with joy that comes from knowing they are loved by God.

It is a blessing for me to work on both sides of the fence as this gives me hope for change both in the girls' lives and change in Cambodia. God is in the business of change!

Being a missionary is not what I thought it would be! Nor is Cambodia what I expected. It's the place I was born but I am so Kiwi that people say I am more Kiwi than my blonde, blue eyed Kiwi husband! People here look somewhat like me, part of me is of this culture, part of me is Kiwi, these are my people but so are Kiwis (and of course I support the All Blacks!).

In the end, I believe it doesn't matter where you are from or what you look like, but the relationships that you build and the love of those people around you. I am often not accepted here as a Cambodian (Khmers often remark "surely you're Japanese . . . or maybe Korean?") and at times I feel like a refugee here as well, but for now this is the land God has put me in and I'll make it my home, just as I did once before - twenty years ago in New Zealand.


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