We were lucky.: Becoming Minnesotan

Female silhouette.
  • Name - Thaly Chhour
  • Age at interview - 32
  • Gender - Female
  • Generation - First Generation American / Refugee
  • Date of Interview - 08.14.1992
  • Line of ox-carts, Cambodia, 2000s.  Photo courtesy Camboda.com.
    Loaded truck, Cambodia, 2000s.  Photo courtesy Camboda.com.

    Escape, Khmer, Politics, Refugee Camps, War

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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
    • Chapter 2
    • Chapter 3

    Download Thaly Chhour 9
    3:56 Minutes | 3.77Mb


    Narrator: Thaly Chhour (TC)

    TC:  I always feel like I am the strongest in the family. I took care of everything, even during Khmer Rouge later before Vietnamese got in, I have to go and dig the ground and all that. I feel like, "Where did I get this strength?"  I was so skinny, but I work very fast and I was so glad that I still have strength and I wasn't sick and I did a good job. And then I did fast job so I can go and find food after I finish with what they give me to do. And so when I went home, I still feel that, wow, I have a lot of strength, must be God's help me because my family is so weak. And then I always carry rice on my head to go about two miles to get some stuff back home to sell to the students and all that.

    And when there was not safe, we feel like it's not safe, so one of my mom's cousin went during Chinese New Year in February, 1980, he said that he will come here to the U.S., to the West, he said. And then my mom said, "What about me and my daughters?" He said that "If you want to come along, you can." And my mom thought maybe I want to stay because I don't have any sons, it should be okay, she said that to him and he said that if they don't have enough soldiers, even the ladies they would pick. Then my mom kind of scared and not want us to go into the army or something like that, and plus we are afraid of the Vietnamese people, you know, so we decide to leave with my mom's cousin.

    And when we left, we did not dare to let them know at all, we might get caught if we let the Vietnamese people know. So we left to Nong Samit camp. When I got to Nong Samit camp, it's so hard, no water, no shelter. Then we met a friend of my mom's, so we stay with her for a while. Then it's so hard, I didn't know how to live because no place to take a bath and no place to stay and no water, we have to buy water and all that. Then my mom thought maybe we should go back. We left because we like to come here and at that time they did not take any more people. They ended like late 1979.

    Then my mom kind of decide to go back and we all decide to go back. Then her friend said that they always try to get here and you want to go back. And she told us we should stay for a while to see because it's hard to go back and forth across the forest, you know. And when we walk across the forest to that camp, we were so scared, but there were a whole bunch of people and it was lucky at that night. We were safe. We didn't meet any problem, any people who torture like other people. So we were safe.

    Continues in Chapter 2

    Download Thaly Chhour 10
    3:50 Minutes | 3.69Mb


    Narrator: Thaly Chhour (TC)

    Interviewer: Cheryl A. Thomas (CT)

    TC:  One night we decide to go back to Cambodia, and we try to find a cart, a cow cart so we can put stuff in, put my mom back. When we came, my mom got to stay on the cart, too, the cow's cart, too. And then they just said, "Don't go back, stay with us. We let you stay in our place until you find something and you can go and find and do, buy and sell things in the market." So we decide to stay and we thought maybe if we go back it's not good, maybe Vietnamese might do something to us. And when we left, we sold all the thing and we gave all the thing away. So it's hard to start all over again. So we decide to stay and we got stuck in that camp for about two years. And a lot of fighting while we were there, maybe five, six times.

    CT:  What was the name of that camp?

    TC:  Nong Samit camp like "new camp", and we stay at that border camp and there was some fighting between Cambodian soldier, between one group to the other group, sometime Vietnamese, and sometime the soldier in the camp they fight each other, argue with each other. And at that time I was in the market sell some stuff to make a living. And each time we had to run away. Sometime we grab something, sometime we left that thing, we just have some money.  Then we start all over again, bought stuff from the Thai people and sold at the market to make a living a little bit. And we run many times, several times when we were there. Lucky we never get hurts from the gun, the bullets, or anything. And when I was escape, I saw somebody, you know, had gunshot the leg and all that, but we were so lucky.

    Then we did not dare to walk across the forest to Khao-I-Dang camp because we all women, we were afraid, no men in the family, we're afraid that we got rape and all that, and my mom she so weak, so old to walk at night, and my mom's relative from Cambodia, they live in the camp. They younger, stronger, so they did not want my mom to come along because she is so weak they were afraid that we all might get caught, you know, during - walking in the forest.

    So they left and we stay there and we did not dare to move, we did not dare to say that we tried to get to Khao-I-Dang camp. If they knew they will torture us because they think that we try to leave the country and all that. So we just live there quietly and try to make a living each day and try to make friend with people who have men in the family so they can help to protect us during the night. Nobody come and bother us and all that.

    Continues in Chapter 3

    Download Thaly Chhour 11
    1:34 Minutes | 1.51Mb


    Narrator: Thaly Chhour (TC)

    Interviewer: Cheryl A. Thomas (CT)

    TC:  And one day my mom met another friend who came from Cambodia but they have a way to get to Khao-I-Dang. They have somebody who can bring them. So she left us. My mom said when you get there, please try to help us. So she send somebody to get us.

    We didn't dare to come.  We thought maybe it would not be safe; we didn't dare to trust anybody. Then she send a letter along with that guy and then my mom and sister, if you don't take a chance this time we might not be able to got anywhere. So we came with him and it was okay. He brought us to the camp safely. At that time it's Chinese New Year's again in February, so it was not - I'm not sure if Chinese New Year or Cambodian New Year's, so it was quiet in the camp and they were having fun or something, nobody check or something, so we got to Khao-I-Dang.

    CT:  How long were you in Khao-I-Dang?

    TC:  It's only a few months. We met our relative. And when they had the name to come to the United States, my mom asked them to sponsor us along. So at that time they can do that, so we came along with them. We were lucky.

    Related Glossary Terms

    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 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)


    Adjective:  Of or having to do with Thailand, its people or language.

    Noun:  1. A person from Thailand, or of Thai background.  2. The langauge spoken in Thailand.


    Verb:  To intentionally inflict pain or suffering on someone.  (tortures, torturing, tortured)

    the West

    Noun:  Short for the Western world, that is, the noncommunist countries of Europe, the Americas and Australia.


    Adjective:  Of or pertaining to Vietnam.

    Noun:  1. Inhabitant of Vietnam or person of Vietnamese descent.  2. Language spoken predominantly in Vietnam.


    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: 573