From Cambodia, Executive Director for IRCO
[From 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge regime was responsible for the deaths of an estimated 1.5 million people in Cambodia—primarily through forced labor, starvation, and execution. They outlawed all religion, abolished banking, confiscated private property, and relocated citizens, forcing them to work at collective farms. Anyone who spoke out was quickly reminded of the Khmer Rouge's motto: "To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss." Sokhom Tauch was one of the lucky ones who escaped.—eds.]
"When the Khmer Rouge was coming to power, I was an ensign in the Republican Navy—very young. We were warned to hide for maybe a day or two, until it was safe to return. So some friends and I tried to cross the Indo-China Sea in one of the smaller naval boats. But it was too small, and too slow. Luckily we found some bigger ships to travel with. We got to Malaysia, but they wouldn't let us in. That's when we got word from Cambodia that we shouldn't come back—you are going to be killed. I was supposed to get married in two weeks to my fiancée, an arranged marriage. Later I found out she was dead.
"Somehow my commander talked to the US ambassador in Kuala Lumpur, and they suggested we sail to the Philippines. But they wouldn't let us in, because we were flying a Cambodian flag. So the US Navy gave us an American flag and uniforms, and we are allowed into their naval base.
"After staying for a month or so, we shipped to America. I didn't know much about the United States—I'd never heard of Portland. All I knew was San Francisco, and the song about leaving your heart there. And I knew Detroit was making cars! But when a busload of Americans met us at the airport with a sign that said, 'Welcome to the US.' I felt so happy, my tears dropped. But I was also sad I had to leave Cambodia.
"In Portland, I was placed in an apartment, and started going to school. I was a bus boy, a dishwasher, a janitor, and all that time I stayed in school, studying bookkeeping. I came to IRCO in 1976, where I worked for accounts payable, as well as being a Cambodian translator. Slowly I worked from being at the bottom of the stack to becoming executive director. When I came here I didn't even know what a quarter looked like. But I always paid attention at my jobs, and was patient while always trying to do the best I could.
"Meanwhile, my mother didn't know what happened to me. She thought I was dead. Every week she would go to the temple to pray. Finally in 1984, I was able to send a note back to my town, and it got to my mother! She then sent a letter to me, asking many personal questions about my family to see if it was really me. Two years later I flew there to meet her, and I had forgotten what she looked like. She didn't recognize me at first, either. But when she asked, 'Are you Sokhom?' there were tears of joy. Eventually I was able to get her to the United States.
"I've stayed at IRCO now for 30 years—because I know what it's like to be new to this country. I talk to the refugees who just get here, just to make them feel welcome and less scared. When you're new, it's important to have somebody." (WSH)