A chance for a new life in America.: Becoming Minnesotan

Male silhouette.
  • Name - Henry Nelson
  • Age at interview - 38
  • Gender - Male
  • Generation - First Generation American / Refugee
  • Date of Interview - 08.13.1992
  • Khmer landmine removal team, Cambodia, 2000s.  Photo courtesy Camboda.com.
    Rice fields, Cambodia, 2000s.  Photo courtesy Camboda.com.

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    Essential Question

    Coming to America: What did coming to America symbolize for this person?

    Push & Pull Factors: Why did this person come to the U.S.?

    Words to look for


    Background Information

    The Khmer are the people of Cambodia.  In 1974 a Communist group called the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, gained control of Cambodia.   The Khmer Rouge wanted to transform Cambodia into an agriculture-based classless society, and to remove all Western influence.  Educated people, professionals, city-dwellers, and any opponents of the Communists were quickly rounded up and placed into forced labor camps in the countryside.  Many Khmer were executed under this tyrannical regime, and many others died of starvation, exposure and exhaustion.  During the period of genocide from 1975-1979 approximately 1.4 million people were executed, and it is estimated that a total of 20% of the Cambodian population died.

    Once the Vietnamese army invaded Cambodia in 1979 and overthrew the Khmer Rouge, Khmer refugees began to flee the country to camps in neighboring Thailand.  Continued fighting by the Khmer Rouge, fears of persecution by the Vietnamese occupiers, and starvation caused by poor harvests caused refugees to continute to pour out of Cambodia, and the refugee camps quickly filled.  Newcomers were forced back to Cambodia or managed to stay in the camps illegally.  The U.S. began accepting refugees from Cambodia in 1979, and took 150,000 in that year alone. 

    To learn more about Khmer history and culture, visit our Khmer Community page.

    • Chapter 1

    Download Henry Nelson 15
    3:1 Minutes | 2.9Mb


    Narrator: Henry Nelson (HN)

    Interviewer: Jim Dorsey (JD)

    JD:  And what happened in Thailand?

    HN:  I run across jungles; across jungles that have a mine there along the borders. Khmer Rouge put the mines to prevent people from running out to Thailand. Many people died in the jungles. Many of them. I saw the bones there, the skeletons there in the jungle there.

    So by that time many of mine have been exploded, so we have a certain way to walk. But just walk on that little path, don't get out of that path. So I run to Thailand with everybody. A lot of people run by that time who don't trust the new government either, because they know that new government name is communist also.

    I don't know if you know about this or not, but by that time, Thailand government send the people back by Dang Rak mountain. They let them go down. I go around. That route, hundreds of people died too. Step on the mine field. Then I still continue to come back again. Long way.

    Then the second time I reach to Thailand border camp and I see the Red Cross. I see humanitarian, Red Cross, many organizations there along the border camp. Come to work in the camp and they build the Khao I Dang camp. And they say the refugees who willing to go to Khao I Dang camp, is a camp you have a chance to go to a third country. So we count, Cambodia is the first country, Thailand is second country, and abroad. French, America, or England, or whatsoever, it's a third country. So people who go to that camp you will have a chance to go to the third country. Then I decide, I decide to go.

    By that time I have no one. I am alone. I lost my brothers, sisters, I lost of them. I have no information from them.

    JD : How long did you stay in that camp?

    HN:  I stay in Khao I Dang camp about two years. But because I have a high background of educations, I help the immigration, I help two immigration officer. I help the American immigration officer as an interpreter, and I help the French immigration as interpreter.

    The reason I help them because I also need to build up a good volunteer background or history of my volunteer in order to get them help me go to a third country. Because people who go to third country, most of them have a sponsor and I knew nobody in a third country. I work with them then I ask the American immigration to help me get a sponsor for me. Then they get Catholic Relief Service to sponsor me to the United States.

    Related Glossary Terms


    Adverb:  Beyond the borders of a certain country; in foreign countries.


    Noun:  A person who listens to a speaker in one language and relates what is said to another person in a different language.

    Khmer Rouge

    A Cambodian Communist guerrilla force active from the 1970s to the 1990s under the leadership of Pol Pot.

    Listen to this word: 


    Noun:  A bomb or explosive designed to explode when stepped upon or touched.


    Noun:  A person or organization that is responsible for another person or organization, especially legally or financially.

    Verb:  To take responsibilty for or vouch for another person.  (sponsors, sponsoring, sponsored)


    Noun:  One who enters into, or offers for, any service of his/her own free will, especially when done without pay.

    Verb:  To enlist oneself as a volunteer; to do or offer to do something voluntarily.  (volunteers, volunteering, volunteered)


    Minnesota Historical Society. Becoming Minnesotan: Stories of Recent Immigrants and Refugees. September 2010. Institute of Museum and Library Services. [Date of access]. http://www.mnhs.org/immigration
    nid: 567