Sunday, November 1, 2009

Long journey to a new life


(Posted by CAAI News Media)

WARWICK SMITH/The Manawatu Standard
HAPPY: Cambodian refugee Sam Put with his partner Nicky and daughter Madison

War, extreme poverty and starvation are not issues Manawatu residents face every day, but for migrants and refugees, these problems have often been part of life. Adjusting to a new homeland may not be easy, but when JONATHON HOWE spoke to 29-year-old Cambodian refugee Sam Put, he discovered that success in the face of adversity was possible.

Sam Put was just one week old when his mother carried him, his brother and a bag of rice across Cambodia's killing fields and into Thailand.

His parents were fleeing from Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge regime, which killed more than one million Cambodians between 1975 and 1979. "My parents had to flee," Sam says. "If they'd stayed, they would have been shot or abducted to work in rice fields.

"Pol Pot's regime, they don't want anyone that could think, because they don't want leaders, they want followers."

The 14-day trek to the Thai border was a dangerous journey over mountains and across rivers. Sam's parents endured many horrors on that journey. They lost a daughter to starvation, they saw the dead and disfigured bodies of men, women and children on the side of the road, they saw babies abandoned because their cries would alert soldiers. Sam's cries led to his family being ostracised by a larger group, but his mother would not abandon him.

"She got pushed aside from the group that was leading the way," he says. "At that time, if a soldier hear you, they will pretty much kill you, and you can't tell a baby to sshh."

Sam's family was placed in the Khao-I-Dang refugee camp with tens of thousands of asylum seekers. He spent his first nine years in Khao-I-Dang, a nightmare place filled with death, violence and sexual abuse.

"For me, seeing people die of starvation felt like it was natural because I grew up with it."

He remembers soldiers raiding the camp looking for women and children to rape. "It would happen about once a week. About 10 or 20 soldiers would come in. We always kept everything packed in case we had to run.

"Looking back now, I don't know how so many people survived in that camp for such a long time."

But Sam learnt to adapt, spending most of his time looking for food and attending lessons given by elders.

Sometimes he would escape from the camp and go fishing at a nearby river, a perilous task because Khmer Rouge boats patrolled the waters.

"One night when we went we saw one guy who was caught and got decapitated.

"Although his death distressed me, we continued to fish there. It was that or my family would have starved."

Every year his family prayed they would be chosen for resettlement. Sam compares the selection process to a lottery that his family lost for eight years.

"It's just a list and if your name comes up, you get to go. If it doesn't, then you just stay there," he says. "We were there for nine years, so you can just think the amount of time we'd just wait around to go every year, hoping, hoping, hoping to go."

People were reluctant to take in big families, so Sam's parents put him and his brother forward as a separate family.

In 1989, Sam and his brother hit the jackpot and were headed for New Zealand.

Today, Sam is a polite, cheerful and confident 29-year-old family man. He works in business banking at the Bank of New Zealand and is a semester away from finishing a Bachelor of Education degree, majoring in secondary school physical education, at Massey University.

He also coaches the Takaro International soccer team, attends St Matthew's Church and plays a leading role in the Manawatu Cambodian Association. He recently celebrated the arrival of his first child, Madison Grace Put, with his Kiwi fiancee, Nicola.

His achievements have even caught the attention of staff at Wellington's Te Papa museum. Sam will feature in an exhibition called The Mixing Room: Stories from Young Refugees in New Zealand, opening in April next year, which will tell the settlement stories of refugees aged between 12 and 29 who act as leaders and mentors in their communities.

But Sam wasn't always happy. On arrival in Palmerston North, he felt trapped by his poor English, his loneliness and his lack of independence.

Sam and his brother were placed with a Cambodian family who, although kind, were no substitute for parents.

"A month felt like a decade without a family," he says.

"When I left the camp, I didn't realise that I was going so far away. I thought I could see my mum and dad whenever I wanted."

Sam's lack of English meant he needed help with basic tasks like buying books or ordering food.

"I just felt I was dumb and isolated and a burden on people.

"I felt it was harder to cope than when I was in the refugee camp, because I didn't know how to relate to this place."

Sam was most afraid of school, where he could not hide his lack of English. Some children ridiculed him for being different, and he was subjected to racism.

"I was being laughed at because I didn't really know what I was doing there," he says.

"There were names like black spot because I was real black, dumb a.... One kid called me alien, because the things I was doing were quite strange.

"In the camp, we would hunt sparrow. I did that at school and I got told off because it wasn't the norm, but for me I thought it was normal, because in the refugee camp we hunt sparrow all the time."

He also felt awed by the abundance of food and comfortable lifestyle in Palmerston North.

"I'd never seen a telly, so when I first saw a telly, I cried because I thought, `Why are these little people stuck in this TV'?"

It was a huge moment when Sam's parents came to Palmerston North about a year after he arrived.

"I can never repay what my parents done for me and that's why, in a way, I wanted to help bring them to New Zealand, because without them I wouldn't be here today."

But the problems did not stop. The feelings of isolation remained and at his lowest point he contemplated suicide.

"You've just got to be strong.

"Because of my language barrier, it was hard for me to speak it out. It's hard to tell people what was wrong if you find it hard to communicate."

Sam worked hard at his English, and when he left high school, things began to improve. He credits the turnaround to three things: tertiary study, sport and church.

He completed a sports science and coaching diploma at Universal College of Learning and started to coach the multicultural Massey International soccer side, which later became Takaro International.

"I just slowly started to become confident in who I am, to grow up and be a man and take responsibility."

Making Kiwi friends was vital for integrating into New Zealand society, he says.

"Rather than just hanging with my own people, I learnt to branch out. To me, it was getting both cultures and bringing them together to adapt."

Sam now helps other Palmerston North refugees in his roles on the Manawatu Cambodian Association and Ethnic Forum. His most recent project was organising last weekend's Cambodian Soccer tournament in Palmerston North.

"There is hope for migrants or refugees if they learn to adapt and, as a community. We try to provide them with the correct network and just promote the awareness of different people.

"They will be able to achieve what I have achieved. It's going to be hard at first, but there is light at the end of the tunnel."

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