Above: Theeda in 1983, not long after arriving in Australia at age 3; with her husband, Ben; and on a banana plantation in Cambodia.
Celebrating International Refugee Week, June 17-22
Many are the stories of Aussies who arrived in the Great Southland as refugees, and now live a life of “giving back” in some way, knowing their freedom didn’t come easily.
The story of Sydney woman Theeda has a unique twist, though. For her, “giving back” has meant returning to the country her family fled when she was a child, and making a difference there.
Cambodia, the land of Theeda’s birth, is now a second home for herself, her husband and their four children. There they work in development and education, helping to rebuild a nation that was all but destroyed by the Khmer Rouge.
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Fleeing a Dangerous Regime
Hardly anyone was safe in 1970s Cambodia, under Pol Pot’s cruel regime. Ethnic Khmer people, Buddhists and Christians, students, doctors, lawyers and teachers, in fact anyone educated – were all seen as enemies of the government, and were mercilessly rounded up and executed.
Theeda was just two years old when her family fled this scene of death. Her mother talks of carrying little Theeda above her head across a river, during their desperate journey. And her father tells of a perilous encounter when he was being pressured, at gunpoint, to join the resistance army. At the crucial moment little Theeda ran towards her daddy, which softened the aggressive soldier’s stance, and saved her dad’s life.
After the family arrived at Chonburi, a refugee transit camp in the east of Thailand, Theeda’s dad was given a choice between a few countries that were accepting Cambodian refugees. He chose Australia. As many asylum seekers do, Theeda’s father became depressed due to the uncertainty and the waiting, but finally after six months, on December 22nd 1982, the family boarded a plane for Sydney.
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A New Life in a Strange Land
Theeda remembers the big buildings of the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre, and the feeling that this country would provide “greener pastures”, despite feeling lost and unsure. Eventually her family rented a flat in Canley Vale, and began finding their way into Australian life.
Growing up as new Aussies, Theeda and her two brothers learnt to be resourceful.
“We just played with whatever we had,” she says, “but I look back now and think, ‘wow, my kids have got so much more than I ever had’.”
Gifts like a bike and a pair of rollerblades were shared between the three siblings, and they spent hours playing with other children in the cul-de-sac.
Theeda remembers the big buildings of the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre, and the feeling that this country would provide “greener pastures”.
“Even though we knew we were different, I only noticed it if people made comments about it,” Theeda recalls. Killing chickens in the backyard and eating them was normal to her and her brothers; only through the neighbours’ kids did she learn that other families didn’t do that. She remembers a number of times when her pet bunny would disappear, her father explaining that it had “run across the road”. These days she wonders, with an affectionate laugh, whether it may have been the family dinner that night.
Theeda’s parents worked incredibly hard; her mother sewing their clothes, her father away for work five days each week, returning on weekends. Upon his return, he’d always bring salami for the children and to this day, Theeda remembers her father’s weekly gift whenever she eats deli meat.
The Tensions of Life in a Refugee Family
At home, Theeda’s family largely held to the Cambodian language and culture, with up to 13 people living under one roof. Because of this, Theeda often felt embarrassed and separate from her school friends, at an age when being ‘the same’ matters intensely. The cultural difference created a gap between parents and children.
Language was a topic of contention between her parents. Her father encouraged the three kids to speak English; her mother hoped they’d retain their mother tongue. Theeda’s mum struggled with the English language and so family communication was strained.
When Theeda reached high school, it finally felt like home, with everyone coming from different parts of the world—which meant they all belonged. But in year 10, she was chosen for a selective school and that was when things became difficult, with most of her fellow students being Caucasian. For the first time since age of 3, Theeda felt “different”—and cried all the way home on the train.
Working out where she fit was a struggle. Was it the Australian culture, or the Cambodian culture to which she really belonged? It was an impossible choice. Both were equally a part of who she was.
With her father away every week for work, the tension and generational differences between parents and children yawned wider. Watching sitcoms on TV, Theeda noticed the things that were missing in her home: not having her dad around, and having a language barrier between her and her mum. This is the tension of fleeing to a foreign country as refugees. Starting again meant sacrifice. It was a high price.
Searching for Answers
Theeda sought comfort in drugs, clubs and alcohol, but by age 20, she found herself exhausted, used up, and searching for answers. Realising her parents hadn’t worked so hard for her to become like this, she began looking for a better way.
It was then that spirituality began to matter. Although raised in a Buddhist home, Theeda had attended scripture classes at school, learning about Christianity, Easter and Christmas. To deal with her addictions, she started attending a church with a good rehabilitation program. Here she found faith in Jesus, a new sense of identity, and began rebuilding her life.
At her new church, Theeda also met the man who would be her future husband, Ben. The pair first landed on Cambodian soil together when they went travelling with friends – and it was Ben who first developed a desire to live there and make a difference. Theeda took a little longer though; with her strong Aussie accent, she once again felt she didn’t fit in. Locals would ask why she looked Cambodian but didn’t sound it. That sense of being “different” had followed her, even to the country where she was born.
After marrying in 2003, the couple made further visits, and it was on one of those trips that Theeda felt her heart being pulled back to the land of her birth.
Moving to Cambodia
For Ben and Theeda, the hardest part of moving to Cambodia wasn’t the cultural change; it was explaining their plans to Theeda’s parents, who’d fought so hard to get their family out.
“Why are you going?” they would ask. “Don’t you realise there’s nothing there for you? Australia is so much better!”
Theeda struggled to find the words to explain her heart for her people.
Despite the challenges, they moved in 2013 and began their work with local Cambodians, teaching them skills which will improve their livelihoods and safety. Now, six years on, Theeda’s family jokes that Ben is more Cambodian than she is. “He’s willing to eat anything,” she says. “When it’s time for parties, he’s happy to dance and get involved and he knows the language quite well.”
The Best of Both Worlds
These days, when she’s in the Land Downunder, Theeda feels a strong sense of acceptance and belonging. She attributes that to her faith, and the identity it gives her. While she still encounters the occasional remark that may seem racist, she likes to give people the benefit of the doubt, and assumes that perhaps they’re just trying to get to know her. Things which may have embarrassed her as a teen are now a source of pride. She now sees the value, for example, in Cambodian gatherings centred around friendships, rather than impressing guests.
While some may question her choice to live in a developing nation, Theeda doesn’t believe she’s missing out. In fact she feels she’s got the best of both worlds – with a safe port to arrive home to in Australia every few years, and the opportunity to share what she has gained, in caring for her Cambodian kin.
To find out more about Ben and Theeda’s work in Cambodia or how to support them, email them at email@example.com.
- About the author: This article is an excerpt from an upcoming book by Joni Leimgruber, reproduced with permission. Joni is a freelance writer and blogger with a passion for refugees and their stories. Joni writes at wordsbyjoni.wordpress.com, and you can find her on social media (Facebook, Instagram and Twitter) at @wordsbyjoni.