A Cambodian Refugee Enlists a Governor's Wife to Rescue Her Last Surviving Relative
03/11/1985 at 01:00 AM EST
Your brother is suffering. Sister...I am helpless. I will never forget the memories when we were together...I, your brother, now live alone. I am just like a bamboo boat, adrift in the ocean...Help me, Sister, please!
And help she did. When Sarom Taing read those words last fall, she knew her brother, Pich, now 17, had also survived the horrors of the Cambodian holocaust against all odds. They had been separated six years ago, three years after the brutal Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia and forced everyone living in Phnom Penh, the capital, to move to the countryside. Sarom, now 26, the eldest of eight children, had enjoyed a comfortable life. Her father, a Chinese-born merchant, had provided well for his family. But, driven at gunpoint into the jungle killing fields, they began to disintegrate. First their mother, a stout woman who had become a walking skeleton, died. Then their father fell sick and suddenly disappeared from a hospital, presumably executed. The children were reduced to foraging for food. "I ate tiger's meat, snakes, elephant," Sarom remembers. "I ate mice and I ate frogs. I ate tree roots and leaves and flowers." Sarom was separated from the other children and taken on a forced march to work on an irrigation project.
In December 1979 she fled Cambodia amidst gunfire, ending up in a refugee camp in southern Thailand. Befriended by American relief worker Kathryn Harlow, Sarom emigrated to the U.S. in 1981 with the sponsorship of Kathryn's parents, Phyllis and George Harlow of Marshfield, Mass. Sarom struggled through a period of desperate depression, studied English, settled down as an electronics tester in a high-tech firm and moved into a one-bedroom apartment in Lynnfield, Mass. But all the time she dreamed of a reunion with her brothers and sisters. Living frugally, she saved $8,000 to pay their airfare. And all the time she wrote to people she thought could help—congressmen, senators, refugee groups, anyone. Finally, last autumn, through a Cambodian woman to whom she had written, Sarom learned that Pich was in a refugee camp on the border. They exchanged letters, and then she decided to write to the wife of Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis.
As it turned out Kitty Dukakis was Planning a visit to Thailand to help relocate what officials call "unaccompanied minors," or children without parents. "If I ever had any doubts about going to Bangkok, Sarom's letter pushed me over," she says now.
Three months later Mrs. Dukakis arrived at Pich's refugee camp. "He had been waiting for hours," she says. "I was just getting out of the car and he gave me the Buddhist salute, a kind of greeting. He was very small and very thin and had terribly sad eyes. I brought out a tape recorder and, through an interpreter, told him I was going to bring the tape back to his sister. For the first several minutes, he couldn't talk. He'd start, then he'd break down, then start and stop again. His eyes welled up. Pich was too sad to talk."
When he arrived at Kennedy Airport in New York last month, Pich weighed less than 90 pounds. He wore a denim shirt, cotton trousers and rubber-thonged sandals and seemed disoriented. Sarom grabbed her brother and sobbed, not wanting to let him go. "It hurts too much to think where he was," she said. "I hope my brother will be able to forget what he's been through."
Late that night in a New York hotel, Pich woke up from a deep sleep and ordered his first full American meal—chicken and rice. Then he and Sarom talked about what had happened to their six brothers and sisters. All had lost their lives. One sister had been beaten by the Khmer Rouge and later died of malnutrition. A brother had fallen sick. The Communists, impatient for the boy to die, buried him alive. Starvation claimed the others—two of whom perished within a 24-hour period. Later Pich told Sarom he had brought a present for her that he had carried through their 10-year ordeal. He reached into a cloth bag hanging around his neck and pulled out a small, beautifully carved Buddha set in gold. The Buddha had been sculpted from a tooth—their grandfather's tooth—a symbol of their family continuity, of all that had been lost, of all that was to come.