Home > Khmer Rouge, Local News > Far From the Killing Fields, a Graduate Looks Back …

Far From the Killing Fields, a Graduate Looks Back …

Remembering the refugee camp, hunger, and uncertainty

By Judith D. Schwartz 

Thi Mary Le Evans with her husband David and sons Mathias, 3, Michael, 7, and daughter Anneliese,1.

Credit: Nick Romanenko

For Thi Mary Le
Evans, the memories are vague: she remembers the heat, the sounds and feel of
the night jungle, and being told not to talk. She was 2 ½ years old when her
family walked from Phnom Penh in Cambodia to the
Thai border.
“We
were told Thailand
was not taking Cambodian refugees so we were disguised as Vietnamese,” says
Evans. “My parents took only a jug of water and us … their three children.” The
jungle they traversed in the dark of night was full of snakes, cobras and
landmines.
On May 15, Evans, now 27, a married
mother of three, received her master’s from the School of Management and Labor
Relations  (SMLR)—and presented the
convocation speech.
For
Evans, the route to academic achievement has involved not only challenging
courses and hard work, but also refugee camps, hunger, and uncertainty. She was
born after the collapse of the Khmer Rouge, a regime notorious for social
engineering policies that led to the genocide marked by the chilling phrase
“killing fields”. Her parents each spent a decade in labor camps, their own
families having been wiped out. Her father survived only because by chance he
was studying away from home when the soldiers came through.
These
dark facts were a constant background to growing up, says Evans: “The history
was ingrained in us. We talked about how intellectuals, the educated and
literate, were killed. We understood why we had no grandparents, aunts or
uncles. The only way to know where you come from is to talk about it.”
After
their jungle trek, the family spent a few years in a Thai refugee camp. “I
remember dirt everywhere. We had a bamboo hut and banana leaf roof, with walls
of plastic to keep out the rain,” she says. “But not until I was an adult did I
understand the deprivation. I was a child and everything was enchanted for me.
At school, occasionally there would be lunch given and it was a piece of stale
bread. I remember being told by my mom and dad: ‘Bring it home.’ That was food
for the family. That’s what we ate, with rock salt.”
The
family was later moved to a refugee camp in the Philippines,
where they stayed for more than two years, and then followed a sponsorship from
a church in Maryland, which brought them to
the United States.
Upon
arriving in the US, Evans’s
mother learned she had a sister in New York City
and the family moved to the Bronx, where they
remained for 10years. The neighborhood was riddled with drugs and violence, but
Evans found a haven in her grammar school, Immaculate Conception School, and
its associated convent. An all girls’ Catholic high school brought her to Manhattan and provided
job placements, which gave Evans her first glimpse into the work world.
When
her parents expressed reluctance to let her travel even on a full scholarship
for college, Evans took courses at Middlesex
County College—until
the disruption of September 11 meant she needed to focus on earning a living.
Once she could zero in on academics, she enrolled at Rutgers,
where she was originally a pre-med student, but took a variety of subjects that
interested her.
By
happenstance, she took a class on labor relations with Professor Paula Voos and
a class with Professor Jeff Keefe. “[The subjects] clicked with me—they were
multidisciplinary and can be directly applied, taking everything I was
currently seeing and experiencing while providing me with a toolbox of new
ideas and possible solutions,” she says. “It related to how policies and
relationships between people developed in the world and how I was affected by
it.”
What
Evans treasures in Rutgers is that “people are
huge resources, full of ideas, and there are so many associations and
connections constantly around us,” she says. “In SMLR at Rutgers,
students have full access to professors. It’s very student-centered.”
Evans
is interested in pursuing international labor relations, planning, and policy
and expects to go on to get a Ph.D. J.D. For now, she’s taking a break from
school and working to establish a nonprofit to promote access to education and
basic necessities in Cambodia.
In
her career, Evans hopes to use her knowledge of labor relations to find
solutions to international problems. “In Cambodia, there are classrooms
filled with students where professors are not teaching their classes because
they make more money driving tourists then they would if they taught,” she
says.
Evans
recognizes the challenge of convincing poor families whose children work in
factories that education is worth the loss of family income.
“If
you take out the incentive for the need of child labor as a source of contribution
to family income and put the incentive toward education, then it changes
things, ” she says.
Categories: Khmer Rouge, Local News
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