What’s important to remember about the Khmer Rouge regime is that, when it ended, it sent the country into a civil war that continued raging for about a decade and a half. The Vietnamese were in power, sure—hiring the current Prime Minister Hun Sen and others after they defected from the Khmer Rouge—but this didn’t exactly end the struggle over power or the poverty that led to the revolution in the first place. So Leon Lim and his wife decided to walk to Thailand, where a refugee camp called Khao-I-Dong awaited them just over the Cambodian border.
And they didn’t look back. At least until a year after our interview, when Mr. Lim did return to Cambodia. But that was after a long, long time, spent here, in Chicago.
Even though you’re in the Khao-I-Dang camp, it’s still—I still had a difficult time to live in that camp. The camp is just, like, in the middle of nowhere. [Laughs.] Khao-I-Dang is a mountain. And near the mountain there is just a lot of farm fields, no trees, and very hot. So UNHCR* transported a lot of bamboo and all kinds of things to build huts and so on, so we could stay inside. So it took a week or two to put things together, from the ground until you build the hut so you could live there. All the food and water is supplied by the UNHCR—you couldn’t get it from anywhere, no market, nothing. So each family was given one or two buckets of water per day. If the next day, no truck comes in, it means that you have no water. [Laughs.]
So you had to budget your food and your water. [Laughs.]
So even though I was faced with hardship in the camp, I tried to maintain normalcy. But my condition was getting better because after the camp was established, the UNHCR was recruiting for Cambodian refugees who had some kind of skill or background that could help refugees during that time. Since I was a medical student, a former medical student in Cambodia, I finished the seven required years to become a medical doctor, so UNHCR recruited me on the spot to become a part of the medical team. So I worked in the outpatient clinic, in the hospital, and I also trained more young Cambodians to become caretakers, not just because I realized that human resources were very limited at that time. I trained more caretakers so they could take care of the refugees.
It was quite challenging. I couldn’t believe that my brain started to function, one more time. Think about if you were in college, four years with hardship: no food, no medicine, sick all the time. Like, you’re brain dead. My brain just start to refunction! [Laughs.]
It was gradual. I had a doctor that I worked with who brought me text books and so on, so I started to read, and just continued to gradually improve, every day.
Well, then you know, you had to go through the process of getting sponsored and so on. On my wife’s side, she had a cousin who happened to be in Chicago. And she applied to sponsor my family to come to Chicago. May 25, 1981. At that time, the Cambodian Association of Illinois was just a small place. Like, if you have an organization in the garage. But I’m proud to say that this community continues to grow.
Cambodia is a country that is not known to the whole world. A lot of people didn’t even know where Cambodia is. A lot of people didn’t even know that the killing fields exist.
Survivors of the killing fields suffered so much. The association, back in the late 1980s—at that time I was the board president—we did a lot of studies and found that survivors experienced Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder because they lost everything. We had to find a way to help them to heal. And so one idea that we had was that we needed a place that survivors could call home, could claim their identities. That’s why we dreamed of having a place, like a community center, so that the Cambodian community, the Cambodian survivors, could call home.
The idea behind establishing this museum, the Killing Fields Memorial, was to educate the public about what happened in Cambodia, about the history of Cambodia, before, during, and after the killing fields. It’s also to help survivors to heal, like I mentioned earlier, and also the place for survivors to celebrate their new life in America, especially in Chicago. So those are the three main missions: education, help, and celebration.
Me and my wife are both educators, my wife is an elementary school teacher, I’m a high school teacher. We live in Peterson Park. Northwest of here. I travel around the country a lot lately. Since the museum was opened I was invited by the community to speak about this place because two years ago I introduced my involvement with the museum to my colleagues at my school.
My students, over a two-year period, developed—they were outraged at the story that I was telling them. They were outraged at the killing fields, and they decided to do something. So they developed the first Cambodian Genocide Curriculum. As you know, Illinois is the state that mandates school children to study some form of genocide as part of the curriculum. So Cambodian genocide is one of the curriculum that they need to study. It’s been adopted, right now a lot of schools use the curriculum. But I could not tell you how much of it they use. A lot of schools, not just high schools or elementary, but universities as well. Community organizations, that kind of thing. And they come here as well.
In two years, it’s been quite successful. I’ve been teaching 14 years. So before that it was 11 or 12 years before I told my story.
Why I didn’t tell them before? It was the right time. Because I believed, at that time, I tried to forget, not to tell anybody. But since the museum’s open, I think that’s the right time to tell my story. That story needs to be told. Otherwise, when you get old, if you don’t tell your story, it could be lost. So I realized it’s very important, that the story needs to be told to the world or especially in my case to schoolchildren, to learn more about the history, about the genocide. And what they could do to prevent genocide from happening again. I believe that’s very important.
The more I speak to schoolchildren the more I see how important it is. I see that they want to do something, too.
The younger generation, once they learn about the history, about the genocide—my goal is not just to learn about the Cambodian genocide, but to learn about all genocide around the world. So the more people learn, the more they are involved, the more they could influence the world community to stop that from happening again.
I do want to go back to Cambodia, yes. It may not be the right time yet. It’s gonna take some time for me to process how I would accept it when I go back there. I know it’s easy just to go and visit the family, enjoy, and forget about the past, but it may not be in my case. I still have distant family there. We have a few cousins who contacted us, and ask for help. You help them.
Chicago is my home. I’ve probably lived in Chicago more than I lived in Cambodia.
* United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees