Cambodian genocide survivors visit local high school students
History ‘jumped from the textbooks and met Paso Robles High School students face to face’ last week
– They had to eat insects to survive, brush their teeth with ashes, and risk death with every rice grain they stole. History jumped from the textbooks and met Paso Robles High School students at the campus last Thursday when survivors of the Cambodian genocide visited and later shared their stories of heartbreak and resilience to 200 enthralled Bearcats at the school’s performing arts center.
San Crowther was a young mother in 1975, when the Khmer Rouge took power, ushering in a four-year campaign of terror and atrocities that killed some two million people, or one of every four Cambodians. San and her two daughters survived the Killing Fields and eventually fled to Thailand, where they became refugees, eventually settling in Long Beach, California.
San, now in her 80s, shared her story along with her two daughters, Sithy and Sithea, who were teenagers when Pol Pot’s communist soldiers took power. They told of how they had to lie and steal to survive, risking death daily to scavenge food for their family to avoid death by starvation. The audience listened attentively as San spoke of being forced from her home, walking days to a forced labor camp, and enduring grueling days working in the rice fields among corpses of victims left unburied and mutilated by wild animals.
Sithea and Sithy related their difficulties adjusting to life in the U.S., and how they founded the annual Cambodian festival and parade in Long Beach as a way to maintain and celebrate their heritage and cultural traditions.
The speakers were introduced by Cal Poly professor Katya Cengel, author of “Exiled: from the Cambodia Killing Fields to California and Back,” which details the stories of several Cambodian families who found homes in California. “The U.S. government’s secret bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War created a ripple effect of suffering and migration to American shores,” said Cengel.
“We often forget the generational trauma caused by U.S. policies overseas, and present among our newest immigrants,” said PRHS Social Studies teacher Geoffrey Land, who organized the event. “We can’t easily turn our backs on refugees from regions devastated by the wars we wage overseas.”
The presentation was sponsored by the San Luis Obispo County Diversity Coalition as part of their School Speaker series, which Lost Boys of Sudan and Holocaust survivors. In March, Ben Furuta, a Japanese American survivor of U.S. internment camps during WWII, will visit the high school and share his story.
– By Paso Robles High School Social Studies Teacher Geoffrey Land