In 1984, a professor in school asked us to watch a movie called “The Killing Fields” a film about Cambodia when it was ruled by the Khmer Rouge regime from 1975-1979. It is estimated that the total number of deaths resulting from Khmer Rouge policies, including disease and starvation, range from 1.7 to 2.5 million out of a population of roughly 8 million. The Khmer Rouge regime arrested and eventually executed almost everyone suspected of connections with the former government, as well as professionals and intellectuals.
This movie had a deep impact on me. I have never forgotten it, nor did I ever imagine I would meet someone who had survived this horrible time, let alone an entire family who I admire and have come to love.
It has been a blessing in my life to hear the sweet voice and see the light and love that radiates from Saroeum Eav, the matriarch of this family, a humble and strong survivor.
When I heard her story, I couldn’t help but cry. How can one person, a mother, protect her tiny children from such atrocities, live in such dire conditions and press forward with faith and courage.
In 1975, after being forced to leave their home behind with all their possessions, Saroeum and her husband Leang Eav, who was a teacher, worked in the labor camps from 5:30 in the morning until 7:00 pm. Under wet and miserable conditions, they dug up tree roots to make room so that rice could be planted. Saroeum would also later work grinding rice, braiding thatches used to make roofs, harvesting rice, and more. At times, she was so weak that she had to force herself to go on. The regime had no use for weak people – they simply killed them. She knew that her husband and children needed her and year after year she managed to keep going for them.
She said: “I was so happy about my kids that I forgot about my hard work, suffering and hunger. Everyday my husband and I would run back from work to home to check on our kids during our lunch break. We were so lucky to have them. We both agreed that our life was so blessed because of them, and we both thanked God for the blessing that we received.”
The children stayed mostly alone, babysitters would often steal from the children the little food they had. In the camps, everyone was starving. Saroeum describes watching her two young children in these words: “One cup of rice soup had about 15 to 20 grains of rice. One evening Rachna was eating her food and one grain of rice with some liquid dropped from her spoon and fell onto the wood floor. She tried to pick it up many times but she couldn’t and then she laid herself down close to the wood floor and licked it up with her tongue. As I turned around to get another spoon for Alain, I saw her but I didn’t know what she was doing until I heard her say, ‘I got it. I got it mom.’ I felt sad because I knew she was so hungry that even if a grain of rice dropped on the floor she would try to get it.”
Some days when there was no rain, Saroeum would take her children to work with her. They liked to play in the field. Young Alain would find and gather grasshoppers, crickets and frogs, which he would cook and feed to his little sister and mother so they wouldn’t be so hungry. He was 5 years old.
In 1979, they escaped the labor camp by walking barefoot through mud, crossing rivers and jungles for 15 hours, not daring to stop to rest for fear of being caught and killed, all while keeping their children quiet so that the soldiers would not hear them.
When they finally reached the border of Thailand, they laid down in exhaustion for two days. Saroeum was two months pregnant.
They ended up in a refugee camp that would be their home for 18 months and where they would welcome their third child—a baby girl they named Mithona.
While in the refugee camp, Leang studied English. In May of 1981 they were sponsored by an American family who made it possible for them to come to the United States.
What Leang and Saroeum Eav knew about survival and endurance helped them flourish in their new homeland. All of their children graduated from college and are now all married and have children of their own. They teach them of their grandparents, of their sacrifice and faith, of their determination to survive and endure with patience. Their legacy will live on for countless of generations.
This week, I hope we can all take a moment to focus not on our own struggles and problems, but to draw strength and courage as we look to someone who has endured much and risen above the sorrows of this world. To the Eavs and to all who are an inspiration, thank you.