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What a Refugee Knows of Promises

As a Cambodian refugee in Saigon, I saw two countries fall to violent revolutions — and learned to be wary of promises.

· refugees,Saigon,Afghanistan,women's empowerment

by Chantha Nguon (with Kim Green)

Like so many who were there when Saigon fell, I’ve been watching the news from Kabul with dread. I was a teenaged refugee from Cambodia that April of 1975, when the columns of tanks and trucks crawled into Saigon. Crowds tossed flowers to the soldiers, who laughed and fired their guns into the sky. 

After so many years of war, my neighbors were celebrating peace, or what seemed for the moment like peace. People were nearly mad with an uneasy relief, like crazed laughter after a brush with danger. "Our brothers are coming!” one woman shouted. “Come out to greet them!” I stood apart from the jubilation. As a Cambodian, maybe I didn’t feel that I belonged to Saigon. Or perhaps I sensed something ominous in wait. All over the city were signs of the panicked American withdrawal. I was shocked by the television images: people dangling off the edges of helicopters and scaling the walls of warships, then slipping off into the sea. 

After the chaos died down, the new government began to keep its promises to South Vietnam: of reeducation camps; of loudspeakers shouting indoctrination in a strange new ideological vocabulary; of soldiers prowling the streets, listening for forbidden wireless broadcasts. The new regime was dismal and repressive, but not genocidal — like the one that swallowed Cambodia that same April. The truth took many months to emerge; the news from home had gone dark. And then the survivors began to appear. We could not believe the stories they carried with them, of horrors that could not happen in the world we knew.  

The Khmer Rouge almost kept their promise. They had promised us Year Zero, the end of civilization as we knew it. Nothing prepared me for how close they were to achieving it. Five years after their regime fell, I passed through Cambodia, hoping to reach the refugee camps in Thailand. Phnom Penh, the bustling capital I loved as a little girl, had become a derelict shell full of starving squatters. Only the rats and flies thrived. 

By the time I made it to Thailand, I thought my refugee’s journey was almost over. The West would surely keep their promises to us “displaced persons” and resettle us quickly. But for reasons I could not grasp, someone in charge of our fates had closed the doors of the world to my category of refugee, whatever that happened to be. So after 14 years in Saigon and 10 years in Thai camps, I came home to Cambodia and built a new life here, against all odds. My husband and I worked for Doctors Without Borders, then built a Social enterprise for women in a remote province. We began the long work of helping to relaunch civilization in our devastated home country.   

I survived. I was lucky. Earlier this month I celebrated my 60th birthday, isolated but safe in my Phnom Penh home. Watching refugees on TV clinging to airplanes, children handed over a fence. Again, the revolutionaries are marching in. The images carry me back to April of 1975, to country boys with sunburned faces and guns, drunk with newfound power.  

I fear that the Taliban may keep their promises to the Afghan people — the zealots usually do.  

The promises of the well-meaning West are much harder to keep. Too often, it seems to me, they promise what they believe should occur, not what is actually possible. I sometimes wish that lovely, innocent optimism would transform into humble curiosity about what we nations of refugees have learned — from decades of promises keptand broken — about what kind of help truly helps. 

My husband and I created our women’s center in search of answers to that very question. We wanted it to be, for rural women and girls, a promise of livelihood, education, and freedom from violence, hunger, and forced marriage. I know that most of the world wants the same for Afghan women and girls. But in my years as an aid worker, I have seen so many female lives held captive by men with nearly absolute power over them. And I have seen how the work of helping women seize power for themselves takes generations to achieve. There are no quick, "instant noodles" fixes. It is hard enough to profoundly transform a few families’ lives for the better, much less rebuild an entire nation on solid foundations. Overconfident promises are not enough. 

My life as a refugee and an aid worker has taught me that not all promises can be kept. When fanatics with guns promise the international community a kinder, gentler regime, I have my doubts. But when they make menacing promises to the people under their power — and especially, to the women and girls — take heed: those are the ones they are likely to keep.    

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