Cambodia to Minnesota: Peou “Beaw” Pin-Mene’s story

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Peou “Beaw” Pin-Mene, 34, came to Minnesota at the age of six. She and her family survived the Cambodian genocide and after several stays at Thai refugee camps were able to immigrate to the United States. 

Where do you and your family come from?

My family is originally from the Kompong Cham Province, and through my late father’s work, they relocated multiple times, to different parts of Cambodia.

My mom seldom speaks of my late father’s work, perhaps it’s too painful for her and I tried to press her for more details and now I’ve learned to just respect her decision. All that I’ve been told is that he worked for the government and at the onset of the “Killing Fields,” he was told that he needed to take his troops to meet and guard the King of Cambodia. This was April 18, 1975. He was never seen again.

How and why did you and your family decide to come to Minnesota?

Our family didn’t make the decision to come to Minnesota voluntarily. We were one of many families displaced as a result of this war. After the Vietnamese took over Cambodia in 1979, families that survived the Khmer Rouge regime, risked their lives walking across the jungles of Cambodia, crossed the border to Thailand and stayed in the refugee camps. My family was among them and luckily we survived the hazardous conditions along the way.

We literally left with just the clothes on our back, without shoes, and on wild, jungle terrain. We not only encountered forest fires, but also Thai officials that were guarding the borders. My mom, my two sisters, my brother and I managed to survive and we stayed in the Thai refugee camps, first in Nung Chan, Thailand. I forgot the second refugee camp we were at because our time there was very brief.

We worked with the people, perhaps volunteers, and got a preparation to America at the refugee camp. We learned the basics: English expressions like, ‘Hi, how are you?’, ‘Excuse me,’ etc. They tried their best to help prepare us and they didn’t know if we’d end up in a warm or cold state. So they told us about snow and how cold it would get. Although, in the Cambodian language we do not have a term for snow and the closest translation is ice. I was so scared because the ice we were used to seeing, were large blocks of ice. In my four-year-old mind, I pictured these blocks falling from the sky and thought I am going to die in this cold state!

I told my mom that I didn’t want to go. She reassured all of us that they wouldn’t rescue us only to kill us! I still wasn’t convinced until she said that there are beautiful clothes, jewelry and nail polish in America! They also taught us about airplanes and that that was how we were going to America. They showed us a picture of what a seat belt would look like and how to put it on. I won’t go any further except to say that nothing prepared us for the extreme cold of Minnesota!

Did your family adapt to Minnesota well?

We arrived in November, 1982 and there was a lot of snow and it was freezing! Now it’s 2010 and yes, we are all very well adjusted, although it took us a long time!

It wasn’t until we started to learn and speak English and became comfortable with it that we realized that this is our home. Because I was the youngest, I adjusted very quickly. My siblings took a little longer, keep in mind, their ages were 14, 16, and 18 when they arrived and I was only six! As for our mom, it took her even longer!

We would not have been able to adjust as well had there not been people and organizations here to assist us: families, community members, and social service agencies like Catholic Charity and Wilder Refugees Resettlement Programs.

What do you think about the documentary “Enemies of the people”?

The documentary is absolutely valuable and important, although my siblings and my mom do not agree. They lived through it and this is not something they want to remember.  

I was born at the onset of this event so my recollections are not as vivid and painful, perhaps more at the subconscious level. This document is very important because it documents a very dark time in our history and it should not be forgotten or repeated. It’s important that future generations of Cambodians that are either still in Cambodia or living abroad, such as me, ought to be aware. It is part of history that needs to be shared with future generations of Cambodians and shared with everyone.

This movie gave me a glimpse into the minds of men who led this atrocity and I was startled to learn that this was done in the name of patriotism! What they did was unforgivable and millions suffered. Families were lost and destroyed, our nation, our history, our heritage was almost destroyed! This is a powerful documentary – it’s a lesson on leadership, power, and ethics.

What are you currently working on?  

I am currently working at Metropolitan State University in Student Affairs. My background is in Secondary Education. I taught inner city students in the St. Paul Public Schools before I started working for the Minnesota State Colleges and University Systems. 

How would you describe the situation for Cambodians in Minnesota?

We’re dispersing throughout different parts of Minnesota and our level of educational attainment all vary. Some families have adjusted to life in America better than others. I’m not active in the Cambodian community, although I am very close to my family and it’s our family gatherings and special celebration and holidays that bring us together with members in the Cambodian community.

How does your family deal with the genocide?

My family talks openly, although my mom does not talk about her life before the war, her life with my father. She says that it’s too painful to remember those happy moments.

Two Cambodian immigrants living in the Twin Cities told their stories in interviews with the Daily Planet after seeing the documentary  Enemies of the People about the Cambodian genocide from 1975-79.

Read an article about the filmmakers and the making of the film here.

Vuth Chhunn (26) came to Minnesota in 1993. His parents are survivors of the Cambodian genocide of 1975-1979. Forced out of their country, they fled to a Thailand refugee camp and lived there until the family immigrated to the United States. According to Chhunn, for his parents this move symbolized a life far away from the genocide and a better future for their children. Read his interview here.