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Cambodian students tell stories of life after genocide

It was a powerful night filled with stories of sad history, empowering moments and at some points, tears.

Students of various nationalities gathered in the Viking Union Multi-Purpose Room for “Our Hidden Story II: The First Generation,” during which, speakers Monika Nuth, Holy Chea and Chanira Reang Sperry recounted their experiences as first-generation Cambodian students living in the Pacific Northwest.

The event was presented by Westerns Khmer Student Association on February 25.

Nuth, a Western graduate and a daughter of Khmer refugees, recollected when she asked her father about their family tree.

The question forced him to bring up memories from his time in Cambodia.

“This is the most traumatic experience that my dad has faced. I was asking him to relive this moment for a school assignment.”
Western alumna Monika Nuth
“I vividly remember him sharing how he left the country with a group of people he didn’t know. I remember him telling me, ‘When I left, I couldn’t look back,’” Nuth said.

The Cambodian genocide was an attempt by the Khmer Rouge party leader Pol Pot to establish an agrarian socialist government in Cambodia. In an effort to create a society without competition, the Khmer Rouge persecuted Christian, Buddhist and Muslim citizens. From 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge killed an estimated 2.4 million people.

Students share stories at “Hidden Stories II: The First Generation” February 25 // photo by Katie Meier

Nuth’s father was one of the many Cambodian citizens who fled the country. During his escape he lost many of his group to landmines. He couldn’t stop to help them because he had to run for his life.     

Chea, a child of Khmer genocide survivors, took his time on stage to share how he learned to accept his heritage.

“When I was going to school, the only Asians were Chinese, Korean and Japanese,” Chea said. “A lot of my classmates didn’t know where Cambodia was, what Cambodia looked like. They never heard of it before,” Chea said.

Chea overcame his shame when he lost his mother suddenly. She was his hero and her loss made him accept his culture, he said.

Sperry’s story was a bit different than the other speakers. Unlike them, she was in Cambodia when the Khmer Rouge took control. At 2-years-old she escaped with her family by boat.

Because Sperry was so young, the memories she has of Cambodia are her family’s, not her own.

“For all of us that are Khmer, our parents and our grandparents are sharing their stories,” Sperry said. “We are asking our parents and grandparents and elders to go to a place that is really forbidden. It is forbidden because of all of the pain and having to relive the trauma.”

The words of the speakers left a lasting impression on the audience. Sophomore Aundrea Koger left the event feeling more educated.

“It was really eye-opening,” Koger said. “Quite frankly, I never really learned about the Cambodian genocide. In my history classes we never really talked about anything like that. It was really interesting to broaden my worldview.”

Alumnus Najin Kwak found the speakers stories to be the highlight.

“These are real stories,” Kwak said. “It’s stuff that I thought I would only see in Netflix documentaries.”

The Khmer Student Association will host its seventh annual new year show in the Viking Union Multi-Purpose Room Saturday, April 29.

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