Going back to Cambodia (5/7/09)

Local woman starts nonprofit to aid her hometown

May 7, 2009

By Tim Simard

Observer staff

After 33 years away from home, having survived war and genocide and started a new life in Vermont, Williston resident Khem Suong returned to Cambodia in November to reunite with her family in an emotional meeting.


Khem Suong


    Courtesy photo by Khem Suong
Khem Suong’s family members pose for a picture in the village of Krang Baing, Cambodia. Pictured are (from left) Suong’s nephew and niece, Pat and Tong, and her parents, Yan and Suong.

Suong, who owns Khem’s Creative Sewing in Shelburne, didn’t know until last year if any of her family had survived the horrific regime of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia’s ruling communist party in the 1970s. But by working with local Cambodian refugees and scouring through rough information, Suong discovered that her parents and other relatives still lived in the village where she barely remembers growing up.

“I had enough courage to go back and visit,” Suong said of her return to Cambodia. “It was the right time.”

Now, Suong is on a mission to help her native village, which suffers from extreme poverty and poor health conditions. By raising money for the Krang Baing Village Project, her nonprofit foundation named after her home village, Suong hopes to improve the lives of family and friends in Cambodia.

“After everything she’s been through, to be so loving and warm is amazing,” said longtime friend Maureen McLoughlin. “That’s why she’s so generous.”

A long journey

Violence came early in Suong’s life. Starting in 1975 and continuing through the decade, the Khmer Rouge ruled the southeast Asian country, murdering people who were considered politically subversive. While no exact figures have been established, it’s estimated the Khmer Rouge killed nearly 2 million Cambodians in the 1970s.

The government abducted Suong and her older sister from Krang Baing, placing them in a “reeducation” camp. But Suong and her sister quickly escaped. They spent three months hiking through jungle mountains with other escapees, attempting to survive disease and Khmer Rouge soldiers.

Suong eventually made it to the Thailand border, where she collapsed from malnutrition. She awoke days later in a Thai hospital, and to this day does not remember how she made it across the border. Most of her traveling party, including her sister, did not survive.

After four years in a refugee camp in Thailand, Suong arrived in Vermont thanks to a sponsor family that brought her to their home in Essex. Since the age of 14, Suong has lived in the Champlain Valley, starting a family and a successful business.

“I love sewing, that’s why I have a tailoring shop,” Suong said. “It’s a great business.”

In 2008, Suong discovered her parents and younger siblings were alive and well. She said her parents, who barely survived the Khmer Rouge themselves, believed she had died years ago. The reunion in November finally brought closure to Suong’s years of not knowing.

“At first, it was a like a dream thinking they were still alive,” Suong said. “I know it’s real now.”

Return to Cambodia

The Krang Baing Village Project got its start after Suong saw the conditions in which her family lived. The village had no running water and was ripe for disease. Residents routinely died from ailments that could easily be treated in the United States, she said.

Cambodia’s health care system is one of complete ruin and corruption, Suong added. Some doctors only treat patients after accepting bribes, she said.

“When people are sick, they just stay at home and die,” Suong said.

It’s what happened to her brother-in-law only a few months ago. Stricken with a kidney stone, he didn’t have the money to pay for a crucial blood transfusion and passed away, Suong said.

Tremendous poverty also hinders development in farming communities outside the cities. Most farmers make barely enough money to support their families, and never enough to climb out of debt. It’s a cycle that’s nearly impossibly to break, Suong explained.

Back in Vermont, Suong quickly went to work starting a nonprofit organization. With help from McLoughlin, Suong began soliciting donations and raising awareness.

Suong said 100 percent of any money raised would go to improving village conditions and purchasing tools to help in day-to-day farming life.

“I want to help them help themselves,” Suong said.

As part of helping Krang Baing, students at Williston Central School will help sponsor Suong’s village with fundraisers and classroom activities next year.

Suong hopes to soon return to her village and help her family break out of the poverty cycle.

“I want to help them in any way I can,” Suong said.

The Krang Baing Village Project’s first fundraiser will be on May 30 at a Jam For Sam event at Talent Skatepark in South Burlington. Jams for Sam are skateboard events and public fundraisers in honor of Sam Cohn, a local skateboarder who died a few years ago. All proceeds from the event will go to the village project.

For more information on the event and how to donate, call Khem Suong at Khem’s Creative Sewing at 985-5057.