Pranet Preah, Battambang province, Cambodia
Bangkok, Thailand on 22 December 1982
Sydney on 23 December 1982
East Hills, south-west Sydney for three months
We rented a two bedroom flat in Canley Vale for $58 per week.
Insulation worker at Bayswater power station, Muswellbrook, Upper Hunter region, NSW.
Teacher’s aide at Miller Intensive English Class and Health Education Worker at Fairfield Community Health – all located in SW Sydney.
I was the third child of a family of ten children. My [father] was a farmer and he was elected as community leader from 1965 to 1975: five years with Sihanouk regime and another five year with Lon Nol regime.
We was living in the west of Cambodia in Battambang province. In the countryside we don’t have high school and I have to live [away from] my village and family. In 1972, I was living and studying in Phnom Penh as university student for Applied Science.
When Pol Pot took over, all my brothers and sisters stay behind [in our village] except myself, my older brother and one of my younger brothers. Everyone who lived in Phnom Penh had to be evacuated. Everyone had to do the harvesting and go to the rice field.
We haven’t had contact with any family at all. I was thinking about my parents all the time and my brothers and sisters. We feel frustrated and disappointed. We feel sad. We don’t know what to do. I thought that not just me, you know, everyone got the same situation, the same hardships. That’s why it’s best to keep living day by day. We just try to survive. We don’t do something silly and [get] killed and punish.
My wife and myself were married in September 1978, in group of 60 couple! In March we [return] to [my] village. My home was completely destroyed and we had to build a small hut, about three by three [metres], so my wife and myself can live.
I heard that my father escaped two day after the Communists took power. He was living safely in a Thai village, close to the border. Because he worked as a community leader he was on the list of being arrest. But in 1977, he want to come back. He and the army resistance want to fight the Communist government army [and] he got caught and killed. I think that close to 1979 my older brother was killed. They know their background very well and that they were working [for] government.
As a family, we have to earn a living and I being approached by the official. At that time it was working under the Communist Vietnamese government. They wanted me to be an accountant of the village but I decide not to do that. Because we living close to the border, they have a resistance army and I am really, really worried that one day they might come to my home, arrest me and put me in jail. The government accused me of not wanting to co-operate so I got on their blacklist.
I discuss with my brothers, mum and wife and we decide to escape to the border: my wife, myself, my two children and my two nephews. One of them was 14 years old, the other one is 9. My son was a baby and my daughter was about two-and-a-half years old.
That is traditional, magical necklace that Cambodian doctor made for my daughter. She was sick all the time. [We] couldn’t get any proper medicine or doctor. It was a script in there, then they roll around the string and bless to scare the demon or sickness. She wore it since she was three months old and she keep wearing it ‘til we get to Australia.
When we get to the border we live in the Chop Svay [resistance] army camp. They been asking me to work with them but I don’t want to be in the army. I told them that once you are a soldier you have got a gun and either you shoot them or they shoot you. The army chief said, “You have to stay,” and they point a gun to myself. “If you not co-operate you will get killed.” My daughter at that time was running to me and I think [she helped] the army chief soften his stand.
My wife thought we need special occasion clothes to get out of the camp. We need to give money; the guide always wanting more so this can be the special item to give away when they want it.
When we escaped from the army camp, this blanket was given to my son. He was about three or four months old. We have to [walk] three hour to get to the Thai village. They give us food and drink and then in the morning we catch the bus to Surin [camp]. The Thai truck driver asked my wife to get in the front seat with my baby son [and] others sit on top of potatoes. As my son was very small and it was cold because it was December, he give away that blanket to [him]. It was amazing that human being can connect to each other. I am feeling lucky we got support from other countrymen. It was a lucky day for us and especially for my son.
We spent only two months [at Surin camp]. When I got there they not issue the [refugee] card because they are going to close. After Surin we got only two choice: to go back to the border and to Khao-I-Dang [camp]. I get to Khao-I-Dang in October 1981. It’s no safety at all and we thinking when are we going to get registered to go to third country?
In the refugee camp, hard to get someone to do the haircut for you. That one a brush, but it like a razor, to trim the hair. Most of my family plus some friend want to do that. We are living as neighbours [and we] lend it to them or we do it for them.
That item is called krama. It’s a shower towel and scarf you can cover your head. My wife always using it when she went out in the camp with the small baby because it’s hot and this is easy. She can carry the baby plus cover [him].
We use an army cooking bowl in the camp because we don’t have much facility. We use it for cooking, making soup, frying stuff.
That’s a Chinese-made lighter. We use it in the camp because we got no electricity. We got this from friend and we use it daily for cooking.
It’s historical, in memory. We couldn’t believe that we can survive when we were in the refugee camp. No matter how hard you thinking or doing, you still got a good life anyway after you been having hard time.
Every day, we filling the application forms so we can send it to any embassy visiting. I kept this book when I was in Khao-I-Dang and I put my daily story in there and my English learning. Here is how to write application form to any embassy in simple English.
We were hoping to go to either America, Canada, France [but] we got no choice. Australia wasn’t heard of at that time! We learn France in primary [school] so it’s a good communication that we got. It might be possible to find a job or further education there. But I had been accepted by the Australian Embassy. At that time the Australian Government allocate to take Cambodian families of 120. They asked the welfare centres, especially the community leaders, to choose the applicant. In October 1982 I got news I had been accepted.
Chonburi was a bit better. I stay only two months at the holding centre. We been feeling depressed for very long time, not knowing where we will go. When we got the final transit we so excited and wishing and willing to make a proper resettlement in the new country, Australia.
Overwhelmed and excited. Nothing can compare that when the plane take off, when we fly away. We will reach our destiny in a few hour time.
They put me through the East Hills hostel. We came on 23 December 1982, two day before the Christmas Day. Only a few of us stay in the hostel because they don’t have any relative here. [After that], it was crowded. Every day, every week they got two flight of Cambodia to put in East Hills. They got the other hostel at Westbridge, not just Cambodian people, they have Laotian refugee.
We didn’t use the stuff like pan and pestle and mortar because they got their own kitchen. East Hill have accommodation for us, a temporary banking outlet, medical officer come every day, English class too. The service was good but the food is not our daily staple. They cook lamb. When we heard they got curried lamb, we thought that didn’t look like our curry soup. And sweet in the hostel wasn’t that sweet. They call it apple jellies or something; that was not sweet at all.
Our mentality at that time still thinking back to Cambodia. We thought, “Why they put us in the jungle in the country? What’s wrong with this government?”, because East Hills at that time was isolated, like in the bush. We didn’t know the outside because we don’t know where to go.
Sometime we walk to East Hills train station. No-one can understand our language so we just have a look and come back. I think my first experience with Australian people is in the station. They got a small shopping centre and my son and one of my friend went inside a shop. We got a few saving from the government. We living or born or coming from different backgrounds so look at us in different way. I didn’t feel bad, it was like a first reaction that they don’t understand us. They were kind and friendly. They follow us and try to make gesture, communication to say, “Do you want this or want that?” We just shake our head, “No, no, no”, [or] just nod our head, that’s it.
We got this blanket from the charities. Every member of the family got one or two [blankets]. We got the voucher from St Vincent de Paul headquarters in Liverpool and then we go to the warehouse at Cronulla by train.
I was feeling this country new to us but we will overcome any challenges very soon. I was studying the adult migrant English class for three months [and] got a few of saving. First thing we looking for is the fridge and TV, [then] we decide to move to Canley Vale. [A] two bedroom flat at that time only $58 per week. Then I went to the Wetherill Park TAFE and did further study of English.
When I finished there I got my first job as insulation worker at Bayswater [power station at] Muswellbrook, about one hour and a half drive from Newcastle. Very quiet and isolated. Only us as worker who live in provided container work five days a week and come back to see family on the weekend. The job is not hard but the living condition plus isolation is a problem for us who used to live far away from the family and become the same situation again. That what my family feeling at that time.
In 1985 we got another son born. It was very good health care system here compared to Cambodia.
That construction job finished in 1987 and I lucky to get employment as teacher aide at Miller Intensive English Class. I was studying at Mount Druitt TAFE for the Associate Diploma of Library Technician, three years part-time. Then I got a job at NSW Health Department and in July 1991 I doing degree study at University of Technology, Sydney for Bachelor Education in Adult Education. When I was in Cambodia I wanted to get degrees so I can pay back my family. But I couldn’t go through my degree at that time. This is going to be the greatest achievement when I completed it in Australia.
From ’91 I [was] Bilingual Health Education Worker [for] Fairfield Community Health with young people aged 12 to 24. They [later] moved my position to general community, the newly arrived young people here less than five years. At the moment [they come] from Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Congo, Rwanda.
I [am] President of the Cambodian Buddhist Society based at Bonnyrigg and my life at the moment are safe and healthy. It was complicated at the beginning due to the facts that the government, health, education system are completely different here.
In the ‘80s I try to make myself fit to the Australian communities by building up my own living style, education, employment and other opportunity that this country can offer. Nowadays the Cambodian community is completely different. Most people are having proper settlement. The community much more fit to Australian societies. They show we are coming here to build our own life but [also] the Australian country as a whole.
I went to Cambodia many times, I think five trips. I still could not understand why Cambodia not able to catch up with the rest of the world in having proper governing and social living. I was sad that my Cambodian people still living in poverty and don’t have proper education and health laws.
THEAU YORTH was interviewed on 16 June 2010.
Research, interview, research, text edit, photography and film production by Andrea Fernandes, NSW Migration Heritage Centre
Film editing by Jessica Tyrrell