One woman’s remarkable story of survival.
Jean Roxon talks immigration; looking at one woman’s extraordinary story of escaping Cambodia in the 1970s, the impacts it had on her and her family’s mental health, and what it means to be Australian.
Walking through Sydney recently, it has been hard to miss the ‘Real Australians Say Welcome’ posters (the brain child of artist Peter Drew). Plastered to the sides of buildings and occasionally around lamp posts, they send a beautiful message: all are welcome, regardless of race, gender or religion, but importantly, they highlight a longstanding issue that has come to the forefront of the Australian political scene in the last decade – immigration.
Sitting where it does, both geographically and politically, Australia has a long, and fairly inglorious history with immigrants. From the first white settlers – who claimed Australia “Terra Nullius” as their own, disregarding the centuries of indigenous settlement and culture, and the “White Australia” policy of the 1900s (finally being dismantled in 1973) – to the current debate surrounding offshore detention and the re-categorisation of asylum seekers to illegal immigrants and “boat people”. It seems a lot of Australians do not say welcome.
That is not to say Australia is mono-cultural. Go into the average office, classroom or pub anywhere in the main cities across the country and you will see Australians from every background, ethnic group and religion.
Why this fear of immigration? Why did the parliament vote to pass the amendment to the citizenship act that allows for dual citizens to have their citizenship stripped?
It has been labelled many things and it shines a light on the gap in popular knowledge – the gap between what a small number of groups perpetrate as the truth – that immigrants are bad for this country. And, the overwhelming evidence that we see every day – Australia was built by immigrants, we are almost all immigrants, and that we are ALL Australian.
I come from a family of immigrants. My maternal grandfather and his family escaped from Europe in 1937, running from the holocaust. My father’s grandparents moved from Scotland in the 1900s looking for a new start, a new job, a new life. I myself am a mash-up of so many different cultures and backgrounds that it would take pages to fully explain them. But first and foremost, I am Australian.
I am an Australian. I studied at an Australian school and I now study at an Australian university (UTS). I volunteer for an Australian mental health charity (WayAhead) and I speak with an Australian accent. And I love my country, I really do. But sometimes it makes me so angry.
When the former prime minister, Tony Abbott, gave a speech in London last year saying that “denying entry at the border for people with no legal right to come here…is the only way to prevent a tide of humanity surging through Europe and quite possibly changing it forever.” I was not impressed. Not because I did not agree with him (although I don’t) but because he was speaking on behalf of Australia. On behalf of me and my family, my family of mash-ups, with cultural heritage from all corners of the globe, on behalf of Australians.
A little while ago my work gave me the chance to speak to another Australian: a first-generation immigrant who escaped Cambodia in 1983, leaving behind the horrors of the Khmer Rouge. Her story is unique, yet it is one of thousands like it. Stories of struggle, of bravery, of fear and heartbreak, but also, of what it means to be Australian. And, of love, for this country that we all live in and share together.
Leakhena Sous arrived in Sydney at 6am on June 7, 1983 – in a plane that had brought her from Thailand UNHCR refugee camp. She was a refugee.
Looking out of her window at the city below, she almost cried.
Spread out from mountains to sea, the country below her was a stark contrast to the refugee camp in Thailand where she had spent the last months, she a bird, finally realised from its cage. – “I looked through the window – oh my God I felt that I was in heaven. So beautiful – all this light.”
Leakhena and her family were running from the Khmer Rouge, a regime that, under the leadership of Pol Pot, had decimated Cambodia.
Arriving in Australia with her family was an experience like no other. There were seven of them – her sister with a daughter, her sister-in-law and two young children, her younger brother, and herself. She had no English and knew no-one apart from her brother who was working up the coast in Newcastle and would not be able to visit until the weekend.
And it was freezing.
But everyone around her was kind. The people in the hostel they were sent to told her how to get to the St Vincent de Paul shop in Parramatta for warm clothes and the people in the shop told her to take anything she needed. Despite the terror of a new country, not knowing the language and navigating the ever-unpredictable Sydney transport system, for the first time in a long time she felt safe.
The Khmer Rouge – an extremist Cambodian branch of the communist party – came to power on April 17, 1975. In the four years they held power it is believed that over 1.7 million people, 21 per cent of the population died.
Renaming Cambodia, ‘Democratic Kampuchea’, the Khmer Rouge wished to revert the country back to an agriculture-based economy, with no money, no class, no private property and no family units. The day after it took power about two million citizens were marched from the major cities into the countryside to work the land – producing huge quantities of food (three tons of rice per hectare) during 12-hour days of physical labour.
Family units were broken apart and individuals were placed in age-allocated camps. Houses and land were confiscated and thousands of “impure” individuals from ethnic minorities, as well as intellectuals and much of the middle-class where arrested and executed. Many were held in prisons, the most famous of which “S-21” held up to 14,000 prisoners – of whom about 12 survived.
Although only in power for four years the Khmer Rouge regime continues to impact Cambodia today. Tens of thousands were made widows and orphans and hundreds of thousands fled their home to become refugees. One of these refugees was Leakhena.
Forced from their home near Siem Reap, Leakhena’s family were divided. Her older brother was living with his aunt and throughout the course of the war they did not see him. She and her eldest brother were sent to live in a youth camp, working every day to produce food and build for the Khmer Rouge. Her mother, nephews, sister and four-month-old baby were left at home.
Her father, uncle and brother were killed.
“They killed all the educated people, and in my town not just the educated – everyone.”
In the camp, Leahkena and her brother had worked to grow rice and build dams. The work was back-breaking and continuous. There was almost no food and many died from illness and starvation or were executed.
Leahkena got sick.
She was barely strong enough to walk, let alone carry the baskets of food or building material that was expected of them. But she, like many others was afraid to admit how ill she was, those who were no longer useful workers had a habit of disappearing.
She was so thin and weak she could barely walk, even her menstrual cycle had stopped, but she continued to work – “I was so scared.”
Her brother helped her, carrying a double load to make up the difference in her weakness, helping her back up when she fell over. They were a team.
But the Khmer Rouge is not synonymous with happy endings.
“After they took my father and my brother-in-law to kill my brother asked permission to go and look after my mother and my sister because my mum was already sick with diabetes and had no medication. And my sister just had her baby born four months ago and she had post-natal depression when they took her husband to kill.”
During the period when her brother was at home the Khmer rouge ordered another “cleanse”. They rounded up all the young men in the youth camp, and, noticing her brother wasn’t there, asked that he be sent for. Leakhena believes he knew they were taking him to be executed because his final request was to be able to say goodbye to her.
“I was in the rice field, just after lunch, I didn’t know why they were walking towards me, they were far away. And then I wondered why there were soldiers, two soldiers with the guns behind him. They just keep approaching closer and closer…and then I just threw the hoe away and raced to him and keeping crying in front of him asking “what’s happening” and then he just said “don’t cry, you need to promise me that you must look after everyone in the family without me.” I couldn’t answer him – I was crying too hard…crying, sobbing, nothing could be done and then they dragged him away, never to return. I was a woman and there were no adult males in the family alive.”
Every night thereafter, for the three months she remained in the camp, Leakhena cried herself to sleep. Quietly, so nobody could hear, mourning her brother.
Even now, decades later, the trauma is still raw.
“I don’t know why he had to die,” she says, “he was so kind…”
When the Khmer Rouge lost power, Leakhena went back to live with her remaining family and support them. But the war and lack of care and medication had made her mother seriously ill and she passed away not long after. Determined to start afresh Leakhena and her family applied for refugee visas to Australia where her brother was now working and living.
But the shadow of the war still hung over them and indeed over all of Cambodia.
“That’s why my people, they’re not like some other nations, they’re really, really passive. Because this war was actually really traumatising the people of the whole nation.”
Once they were granted Australian visas Leakhena and her family moved into a two-bedroom apartment. There were seven people sleeping, living together, sometimes eight when her brother came down from work to visit, but they didn’t mind.
“The main thing was we had freedom, I was so happy about that – we have freedom and we can do what we can.”
The first priority of many refugees to Australia is to learn English. It is next to impossible to get a job or even shop without at least some basic level of understanding and Leakhena spent a year attending every class she could find.
She registered for classes anywhere and everywhere, so that soon she was studying a combination of TAFE and night school – six days a week.
A year after arriving in Australia Leakhena met with a friend from the Thai refugee camp who happened to mention that he was volunteering at Concord Hospital and Leakhena wanted to help. It would offer her the opportunity to work constructively as well as an opportunity to practice English.
She volunteered two days a week – “I made up packages with dressings, forceps, and then gauze and cotton buds in a silver aluminium tray – and it practiced my English.”
Work in the sterilisation unit eventually led to a cleaning job for the hospital – work but not quite what she had dreamed.
At first the very fact that she had a job made her “so happy” but the reality of the task was challenging – “I was sad with myself because I came to this country and then just because I don’t have the language I am have to do this kind of work – and I told myself that after I learn the English I will find a different job…it’s ok this won’t be forever.”
There are so many things we take for granted – luxuries not afforded to many people in this world. When Leahkena first applied for a job they required some form of identification from her – a passport, a drivers licence – but she had neither, “all I have is a piece of paper with my photo stuck to that piece of paper – that’s called a visa.”
From cleaner to hospital worker, from hospital worker to temp, from temp to administration assistant. Gradually Leakhena worked her way up through the ranks until she found herself working in Child Support Services. It was a good job but it was hard, especially for someone whose family life had been difficult.
Many of her clients were very aggressive and no matter how she tried to work with them they were never satisfied. “Every day is only hearing yelling and screaming and swearing and they’re never satisfied no matter how hard you work. This work is so depressing.”
Work was stressful and on top of that Leakhena and her sister had decided to build a house. The combination of her job and the stress of overseeing the building became too much and one day she collapsed.
“I was so stressed and by the time we finished [building] I was depressed – and I collapsed. I was at the child support agency one day I felt this chest pain and I couldn’t breath and I called out “help, help – I can’t breathe” they thought I’d had a heart attack…they took me to the medical centre next to work where they told me I’d had a panic attack.”
It seemed the medication prescribed by various doctors was not helping, however, her sister had some advice.
After her panic attack at work she told her sister and her sister told her about a potential solution.
“She said why don’t you try this – I hear it’s healed hundreds of types of disease and it’s called meditation.”
Straight away Leakhena booked herself into a 10-day meditation retreat, but the day before she was supposed to leave disaster struck. Somehow she had sprained her ankle and the doctor felt it required crutches.
Luckily she managed to attend and by the end of the 10 days the swelling was gone. It felt miraculous. The effect it has had on her life is ongoing, every year since, she has attended week-long retreats, taking time to meditate on the trauma of her past, removed from the hectic activities of everyday life.
Meditation has helped Leakhena so much that in 2006 she and her sister started an annual Cambodian meditation retreat with a group of friends. The retreat is run in both English and Cambodian, and she is hoping that it helps other’s find peace and closure in the same way it has helped her.
Before he died Leakhena’s older brother had told her – “you need to promise me that you must look after everyone in the family without me…”
It was a huge ask, the kind of impossible question that is only asked in the face of certain death. But Leakhena swore she would do as he asked – “I promised my brother before they executed him, I promised him that I would take care of everyone.”
And she has.
After the war, in the refugee camp and indeed when she first arrived in Australia, everything was about survival; about getting through to the next day and hoping for a future. But even then it was clear there was something wrong with Leakhena’s youngest brother.
“After coming back from that war he came with a completely changed personality. He used to be very assertive and he knew what he wanted. He was smart, he studied, he was quick. But after the war he just stopped talking, ask him one question he’d answer with one word.”
After the family had settled into Australia, Leakhena and her sister went about getting her brother enrolled in school. He was academic but the language barrier in Australia made catching up with school-work difficult, and he became isolated from his peers.
Then he got sick.
“He [had] a little bit of fever and then they took some blood tests and they said he had Hepatitis B. And the doctor explained to him that this illness can never be totally cured you can only take medication to help it and he got upset with them…he locked himself in the room.”
The combination of stress from his illness, a new country, a new school, and the trauma he had experienced during the Khmer Rouge period was too much. He started speaking strange words and phrases that made no sense. He simply stopped going to school, eventually quitting altogether. And one day Leakhena came home to find her brother standing in the middle of the kitchen, saturated.
“When I came home he had hosed the house all over the house, inside, everywhere, the carpet, the kitchen. He said that he disinfected all the microbes in the house. He said, “this house is very dirty”.”
Concerned for his mental health Leakhena and her sister took him to hospital but he refused medication, saying there was nothing wrong with him.
He was diagnosed with schizophrenia.
The psychotic episodes continued, becoming more and more severe and he continued refusing medication. As his speech and movement deteriorated along with his mental health Leakhena felt she had no option but to have him placed in a psychiatric hospital.
“…we took him to hospital and they admitted him, and I was so upset, I cried a lot and I thought – that’s it. That’s the end of his future. He should have a bright future, but this mental illness is not good.”
Now more than 30 years since arriving in Australia mental health professionals are considering putting her brother into a nursing home because he is no longer able to look after himself. Instead of celebrating his achievements as she wished she could Leakhena spends much of her time looking after him, taking him out, walking with him and keeping him company.
But the promise she had made to her older brother still sits heavily on her.
“The promise I made to my brother… I couldn’t help, I did all I could but this is beyond what I can do. I feel like I lost a potential person.”
Now Leakhena volunteers for Arafmi – a charity that works with families and others who care for people with a mental illness. She has been diagnosed with various mental health issues and had to quit her job with the Child Support Agency after taking extended sick leave. And she is worried – she keeps forgetting things.
She is telling me her story sitting on a small office chair next to a window that looks out over St Mary’s Cathedral. She is minding the phone during her lunch break and as we sit down she smiles warmly. By the end of our talk, the smile is gone.
She talks quietly, so quietly that I have to lean forward in my chair to hear, and occasionally she has to pause and wait for the tears to stop before she can continue. But her story never falters. It is like children when they memorise lines to their favourite film – playing the scenes out over and over again always there, yet unable to change anything.
After everything she has told me I don’t quite know what to say. How to make her understand the magnitude of feeling her story has elicited in me – sadness, anger, admiration for her bravery and an overwhelming sense of gratitude that she was willing to share this with me.
So I hug her and offer her a cup of tea and sit for a bit longer and talk about the weather. I feel useless. I thank her for sharing her story, for reliving all that pain for me, and she thanks me for listening and I want to cry all over again realising that someone who has been through so much can still be so kind.
Then as I’m leaving I turn to thank her one last time and ask if she is ok, and she smiles at me with tears still sitting in her eyes and says –
“I’m ok. I survived.”
Last month the ABC ran an interview with author Richard Flanagan. It looked at the Syrian refugee crisis in the wake of the rise of Islamic State. It was a thoughtful, quiet peace about one of the greatest issues facing the world today and one of Flanagan’s statements has stuck with me.
He said, “If there is one answer the world must make to the evil of ISIS, it is to help these people.”
I think, as Australians, it is our duty: to help immigrants, to help refugees; to open up and introduce them to this great country of ours; to show them truly that we care about them, about their stories and their struggles; and, to reappropriate an old cliché – we may not be able to fix the world, but we can help continue their lives, by letting them into our world.
Australia is a nation of immigrants, of whom Leakhena is just one. But I wanted to tell you her story because I think it is important, because it shows us the real-world consequences behind political actions, because it humanises an issue which can seem so very, very large and alien, and because I think it is only right that in the spirit of the values upon which we have built our national image – ALL Australians say welcome.
Photos courtesy of Peter Drew – http://www.peterdrewarts.com/
By Jean Roxon