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Borders & Heritage

Sowing Hope: A Refugee Story

April 11, 2016

Aun Neov has always been gardening. Most residents of Seattle’s NewHolly community are familiar with Aun, as she tends the garden plots or helps clean the grounds. Her prowess as a gardener is evidenced by the bounty she contributes at the neighborhood monthly dinners.

Gardening has deep-seated roots for Aun. She spent some time farming in the Khmer Rouge-led government labor camps out of obligation, and to supplement meager rations at refugee camps for survival.

Aun is a native of Cambodia, and in 1975 the Khmer Rouge forces separated her from her family. She was just a teenager. For the next four years, Aun performed various forms of manual labor including farming, fishing and rock breaking. Many Cambodians died from starvation and harsh working conditions. Others, who were thought to be against the Khmer regime, were swiftly executed. The genocide resulted in an estimated 1.7 million deaths, all at locations called “The Killing Fields.” Aun survived the labor camps, and in 1979 she fled, walking for three months, across the Thailand border as a refugee.

Aun and TonWhile relatively safe, conditions at the refugee camps were harsh. Long lines of refugees waited for small rice rations. Aun met her husband, Ton, and like many couples in the camps, they began to raise a family. Aun gave birth to five children while at the camps, but two of them passed away. The three surviving children, Hon, Savuth, and Em, were able to leave with their parents when they passed the required exams to immigrate to the United States.

Aun and Ton arrived in Seattle in January 1990, residing at the Holly Park neighborhood, known today as NewHolly. They had two more children: Sam and their youngest daughter, Soriya. By no means an easy transition, Aun faced many language and financial barriers after immigrating, and recalls being concerned that her children would fall in with a bad crowd.

“When they were young I worried a lot because I was afraid they would join gangs,” she says. I worried most about my second child.” She speaks a little English and was proud to pass the citizenship exam in 1997.

Aun and her youngest daughter, Soriya.

Today, her youngest daughter Soriya is in college, motivated by the hardships her family has faced. Due in part to the support of the Atlantic Street Center youth development program, Soriya focused on her academics and was awarded a full scholarship to attend the elite private Northwest School. She is currently a senior at the University of Washington majoring in American Ethnic Studies.

“Having my parents come over, having them face what they did, it motivated me," Soriya says. "I, being the youngest, feel like I should be able to offer my parents something to be proud of.”

Two years ago, after suffering with dementia, which was likely a result of post–war trauma, Aun’s husband Ton passed away. She continues to grow the garden in NewHolly that she started with him.  

“I like the most to grow flowers,” she says. "Because flowers are colorful.”  

Aileen Imperial

Aileen Imperial is a multimedia and documentary producer with a commitment to thoughtful observation and engagement. Her work has aired nationally on the PBS American Masters series, PBS NewsHour, and she is a 4-time Emmy winner for feature videos in the Arts, Culture, and Human Interest. Find her on Twitter: @imperealize

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