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  • by Karen Cummings

From Cambodia to Conway

How well do you adjust to change? How long do you think it would take you to become acclimated to a completely different culture and climate? For Cambodian families now residing in Conway -- the Chan family, Sam Muth, and the Bun family -- being transported in April of 1983 from their refugee camp in the Philippines to the Portland Jetport, and from there on to Mt. Washington Valley was almost akin to taking a trip in H.G. Wells' "Time Machine."

A few short years ago, Chaoeun, the Chan patriarch, farmed his fields with a water buffalo. At age 17, Sam Muth, who is now 23, had to work so hard, for such long hours, with very little food, and with no rest that he decided he might be happier if he were dead. Chan's wife, Ley Som, once cooked all the meals for her brood over a wood fire.

These refugees from a worn-torn Cambodia did not leave their homeland so they could accrue more creature comforts. Through their own industry and with help from different factions of the community, the two families are working to that end, but the main reason they left their homeland was for survival.

Both families had long waits before being granted their wish to emigrate to America to start new lives. They would join several other Cambodian families who have successfully settled in the New Hampshire communities of Franconia, Franklin, Manchester, Keene, and Derry. The relocation committee expected two families but anticipated their arrivals would be months apart. Instead, the Chan family arrived just 10 days before the Buns, who were accompanied by Sam Muth in place of their disabled son-in-law.

The arrival of the two families on the heels of one another meant the sponsoring committee had to hustle to provide them housing, warm clothes, and to prepare the community for the arrival. "The community as a whole has been very receptive and helpful over the past year," said committee member Al Eaton of Fryeburg. "Church members as a group have been particularly supportive financially, and providing the physical things these people needed."

For the Cambodian people, this has been a year of learning and adjusting to a complete change in lifestyle. "To be able to comprehend what they have had to absorb in one year's time," said Alice Haulenbeek, English tutor to the nine Cambodian children, "you have to imagine starting over in an environment where everything is completely different."

Knowing they would eventually be traveling to America, Sam Muth and Chaoeun Chan tried to absorb all they could about their new country as they waited for a sponsor in the refugee camp. They both studied English and attempted to master it. "I would practice every night with friends of mine," said Sam in his animated style. "We would talk all night and then congratulate each other on what good English we spoke." Listening to American news broadcasts, Sam related that he was convinced that President Reagan knew how to speak Cambodian because the interpreter who read the President's ,speeches spoke with an American accent and had a voice similar to Reagan's.

As with all people, the Cambodian children have adjusted more quickly than the adults. "All except for the older two, the children have never had any formal schooling," said their tutor Alice. "When they were first put into the school system they could say 'Hello,. may name is...' and that was all. They have all progressed fantastically over the past year. They have more drive than your average student and the effort they put into learning is incredible. It's great to work with them," she added, "because. they never seem to tire of wanting to learn."

The adults have had many problems to face, not the least of which was becoming self-sufficient. Though all have been eager to work, the males have had more success finding jobs because of their greater language skills, but the women are beginning to make advances. Chaoeun now works from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. at Dunkin Donuts, while Sam holds down two jobs, one with Carroll Industries where the assembly line methods amaze him, and another one weekends with Stop 'n Save.

The older Chan son, 17-year-old Chaoeung, recently got a job with A.J. Coleman and continues to be tutored in English four nights a week. The Bun family matriarch, Min Phuong, has had particular difficulty with the language because of a slight loss of hearing, but she is very happy about starting a job soon with the Center of Hope, which will enable her to learn important job skills to help with her future. Sam's new bride, the oldest Chan daughter, Ly Chan, quit school after her marriage, but the entire family is delighted with her job as a seam stress at Jog-A-Lite.

When asked to list things they like or dislike about their new life, the basically shy and reticent Cambodians talk enthusiastically about the freedom of choice they new enjoy. They only spoke disparagingly of the weather. "All the time I like the weather in Cambodia, but I don't like the Communists," explained Chaoeun. "Here I don't like the weather, but I like the freedom."

Coming from a country where the temperatures range from the 70s to the 90s year 'round, it is understandable that the New England winter months should pose a hardship to the Cambodian families. "The children didn't mind," said Sam, "but we had to tell them they couldn't run in and out of the house all the time." The Cambodian men were amazed at how the snow and ice made it slippery and said that it gave them problems with their new found driving skills. Sam, with fear in his eyes, said he never wanted to try skiing, but admitted to attempting ice skating once. With the skill of a mime, he graphically showed how his legs wobbled so much he couldn't keep his balance. To illustrate how much colder it was to them here, Sam said with a laugh that they still took baths with hot water even in the summer.

The two families have retained many of their traditional ways. Before entering their homes, shoes are left at the doorway in the Eastern fashion. The major portion of their diet still consists of their native food, now cooked on an electric stove. They have become Americanized enough to eat their noodles using one chopstick and one spoon for utensils, and occasionally enjoy a hamburger. Since Chaoeun began his job at Dunkin Donuts, donuts have become very popular items in the Chan household. "They are very close families," said Alice, who has spent a great deal of time in both households because of her tutoring responsibilities. "They seem to be happiest when all of them are together."

For the sponsor families in the area, it all started about two years.go when a representative from the Lutheran Services, which had a program for relocating Cambodian families, traveled from Franconia to speak -at various churches in the Valley. He spoke of the plight of the Cambodian people — their annihilation through murder and starvation by the Vietnamese Communists — and told church members there was something Americans could do to help.

The message did not fall on deaf ears. A committee was formed and 20 to 25 interested people attended the early meetings. This group eventually boiled down to 10 or 12 concerned citizens who participated in the effort to bring the Cambodian families here, and to help them make a new start. Though not really a religious endeavor, most of the support for the effort came from three major churches in the area -- the Conway Village Church, the Christ Church Episcopal, and the First Congregational Church in North Conway.

For the Cambodians who traveled around the world to settle in this alien environment, it probably could be said that their odyssey started centuries ago. A predominantly rural country, Cambodia has alternately been influenced and dominated by the Thais, the Vietnamese, and the French since its last great days in the 13th century. With the most poorly developed economy in Southeast Asia, Cambodia was a prime target for the stronger nations surrounding it. When Cambodia's leader, Prince Sihanouk, abandoned his nation's policy of neutrality during the 1960s and allowed the Vietnamese Communists to use Cambodian territory when making attacks against South Vietnam, he opened up his country to invasion.

"Before 1970 I was a farmer," said Chaoeun Chan with a smile; an almost apologetic or embarrassed smile as he explained that he used a "cow" to farm. The fall of the Sihanouk regime and the resultant struggle for power in his country meant that Chaoeun had to become a soldier in 1970. He served from 1970 until 1975 when the Lon Nol regime fell and rebel forces representing the Communists with strong Vietnamese influence took power.

Though the five years of war had already caused a collapse of the Cambodian economy, the real hardships for the Cambodian people started with the Communist takeover. All who had supported the previous government were either killed or persecuted. Though the Cambodian people had never enjoyed freedom as we know it, they were now denied any choice in their lives. "The Communists took everything," said young Sam Muth. "We had to work and work hard with very little to eat. There were no days off -- the communists work 30 day (sic) a month. There was no medicine or anything like that."

Life for most of the Cambodian people became one of constant fear. Chaoeun Chan escaped to the countryside with his family where he once again became a farmer. It is phenomenal that the entire Chan family -- Chaoeun, his wife Ley Sorn and their six children, Ly Chan, 18, Chaoeung, 17, Choch, 13, Chak, 6, March, 5, and the youngest, 3-year-old Chaoeurn -- escaped intact from Cambodia. Fearing for his life because he had served as a soldier, Chaoeun led his family across the border into Thailand to a refugee camp as soon as he possibly could. They stayed there from 1979 to 1981 when they applied to the American Embassy to come to America.

The Bun family stayed in Cambodia longer, enduring more losses before escaping to Thailand. Sam Muth lost family members to starvation and assassination, but he escaped to live with a married sister in Thailand. Min Phuong, the mother of the three young Bun girls, witnessed the beheading of her husband by the Communist forces. A son-in-law was to accompany the family to this country but he lost a leg in a smuggling incident and was therefore deemed ineligible to travel.

"It has been a long, intense year," said Debbie Snell, another of the active Cambodian Committee members. "You don't realize all that goes into reconstructing people's lives. They really do value all these freedoms that we just take for granted. A year is not a long time at all," she added, "and just having a job and knowing they are safe is very important to them. They are still overwhelmed that they are out of that situation."

The benefits for the Cambodians are many. The Buns, the Muths, and the Chans repeatedly declare their appreciation for all that they have now. "I came with nothing," said Sam gleefully, "and now I am married, have a job, a car, friends, and people that help me at work." Chaouen added, "All the time before I come here all I think about was the war and worry about the children. I still worry about the children, but I never think about the war."

The benefits also abound for the Mt. Washington Valley community. "They are a very gentle, very happy people," Alice explained. "All the children in the Conway elementary schools who have had them in their classes have been enriched by the contact with the ,\children and the culture."

"My wife (Carla) and I have learned so much from these families," said Al Eaton. "They've taught us a lot about their advanced, peace-loving culture, which has been thoroughly destroyed by the political conflict. It's been great to be part of the life-saving effort for the families themselves, but more importantly, its been wonderful to see them functioning normally after all they've been through."

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