Cover Story: Refugees and Immigrants: Past, Present, and Future
By Joie Ha and Samantha Quee
No one leaves home
unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
– Warsan Shire
Who are Colorado’s Asian American refugees? Why have they come here and what does their future hold?
Abigail Seang is like a living example of the William Shakespeare quote, “though she be but little, she is fierce.” A fighter at heart, Abigail never faltered in her journey to escape the 1975 genocide in war-torn Cambodia.
Initially married to General Phenarek Norodom, Abigail lived in the capital city of Phnom Penh with her husband. When the Khmer Rouge Communist forces encroached on Phnom Penh, the general was immediately called away to duty. They agreed to meet in Thailand if they were unable to contact each other during the war. At 22 years old, Abigail already had four children: two boys and two girls, but lost her youngest newborn daughter. Saddened by such a loss, and realizing that the city was no longer secure, Abigail packed her things and fled with her remaining three children. Safety and freedom were elusive and foreign concepts to Abigail and her family; the Khmer Rouge found them and forced them into a labor camp.
Her time in the labor camps was grueling. Day after day, she would dig trenches and work in the rice fields under the blistering sun with hardly any food. The Khmer Rouge believed that the whole country should be returned to agriculture. They aimed to execute all of the teachers, politicians, and anyone that was considered “educated.” Abigail soon accepted the crushing reality that she and her children may not make it out alive, especially considering that her husband was a general of the opposing side.
One day, the Khmer Rouge soldiers took Abigail into the woods, surrounded her and brandished their weapons threateningly. Abigail was somber, convinced that this would be a death walk, that this would be the last time she saw her children. The soldiers began asking her questions: who was she, who were her parents, where did she live, who was she married to? Each question was more forceful than the last. Abigail had no choice but to lie. In that moment, she was no longer Abigail Seang, wife of a proud general. She became someone who was born elsewhere, loved another, and was faithful to the regime. After what felt like an eternity of questioning, Abigail succeeded in building an alternate identity and was sent back to digging trenches.
Out of necessity, Abigail quickly switched to survival mode. There was no time to sleep, to cry, or to spend time remembering her past. People were constantly dying around her, so she soon became desensitized to the endless tragedies. However, there is one moment that she remembers distinctly: one of the first times she saw the cruelty of humanity. Abigail’s task for the day was to cut branches from nearby trees. She had climbed to the top of a tree when she spotted two Khmer Rouge soldiers dragging a victim into the forest. Terrified, Abigail gripped the tree tightly and willed her body to stop shaking and remain silent. Hearing the man scream and beg, she watched him die as the soldiers beat him with their hands until he stopped moving. Abigail notes that the soldiers rarely used their weapons to murder innocent civilians; they suffocated and beat them to death instead.
During her time in the camps, Abigail was forced to remarry in the name of the Khmer Rouge regime. Her new husband was a fellow laborer, and although they suffered through hardship together, she did not have love for him. When the war ended, she left her second husband and continued her search for Phenarek. Her love for him had kept her alive, and her hope of finding him had kept her resilient. She traveled for four months on foot with her children until they reached a Thailand refugee camp. Although she was reunited with her parents and some siblings, she never found her husband no matter how hard she searched.
Eventually, Abigail and her family were granted asylum in the United States where she has continued to persevere. Though English was difficult to grasp at first, she successfully learned the language. Abigail has never forgotten those that helped her along the way to safety. She has sent money back to Cambodia and tried her best to visit and help those that had made her journey possible. Although Abigail has remarried and settled into a new life in America, she will always remember her first husband, Phenarek Norodom, who shared with her a fairy tale love that she will always cherish.
For the full story, pick up a copy of the March issue for Asian Avenue Magazine! Or see the online version here!