Cambodia to Minnesota: Vuth Chhunn’s story


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.

Did your family adapt to Minnesota well?

The living conditions in Minnesota are significantly better than in the refugee camp, but the climate, particularly winter, and the language is very difficult for my parents. They still have a very hard time adjusting to the weather and language. As for me, I don’t really like winter either but I love Minnesota.  It’s such a great place to live. There are so many Minnesotans that helped my family throughout our time here and help me become who I am today.  I am very thankful for all of them!

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

When I was in Phnom Penh in 2007, I heard that some of the younger generation did not believe that the genocide took place in Cambodia. They said that their parents were lying to them. That is the reason why this documentary is very important.  It is a testimony of the horrible tragedy that happened in Cambodia during 1975-1979. To have the perpetrators tell their stories and admit to their crimes is a history in itself. This documentary is so valuable to the events that occurred during 1975-1979. 

What are you currently working on?  

I am the Youth Mentor and Intervention Coordinator at the UCAM, the United Cambodian Association of Minnesota.  I currently run the Cambodian Youth Mentorship Program, which brings together Cambodian elementary and middle school students in the Twin Cities to the university students and community members. The main goals of the program are to provide our youths with positive role models and to inspire them with our monthly field trips.   

What is important about your work?

From my personal experience, it was very hard growing up as a refugee family.  My parents did not speak English and they did not understand a lot of things.  Since my older sister and I caught on to English very fast, there was a lot of responsibility that was given to us.  I found myself consistently filling out forms, translating at hospitals and schools, and working at an early age to help support them financially. We understood that we needed to help out and be a good role model to our younger siblings.

My work is really important to the Cambodian students and families.  I know a lot of Cambodian parents are still struggling with the language barrier.  Many families depend on their kids to help them navigate into this society. This causes a lot of stress on both the children and parents.  My work is to have the kids understand their parents’ situation.  

How does your family deal with the genocide?

My family rarely speaks about the Cambodian genocide.  It is difficult for my parents to bring back the memories of this horrible time. The only time I really had a real discussion about the genocide was during middle school when I had to do a genealogy project for my class.  Even to this day, they rarely speak of the genocide unless I ask them. After a few questions, they prefer to talk about something else.

Do you think families don’t talk about the genocide in general?

Families rarely talk about the genocide.  It is very difficult for survivors to talk about the genocide, especially to their children.  Talking about the genocide will bring back bad memories of the past.  As a result, not too many people from the second generation understand the genocide.  That is why documentaries like Enemies of the People are so valuable. It teaches the truth about the Cambodian genocide and helps us understand better.

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.

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.  Read her interview here.

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