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One family’s story

Kim Na's family fled Cambodia in 1980. Photo: Michael Richmond

Kim Na doesn’t remember any of it. Her older siblings will never forget it.

For three years her family lived in hiding from the Khmer Rouge, the deadly Cambodian regime that killed more than a million of its own citizens. They finally escaped to Thailand in 1980 and reached America in 1982. Kim was born here, in Colorado, in 1984.

“My father was targeted because of his occupation,” says Na, who graduated from DU in 2006 with a degree in Spanish and journalism. “He owned a few businesses, and he was successful. In the civil war, they basically wanted to eradicate those who were successful. My father had to hide not only himself but our entire family — on both my mother’s and father’s side.

“The good thing,” she adds, “is that they were able to stick together. We didn’t lose any family members. And we were very blessed in that sense.”

Her family’s experience, regrettably, is all too common: Since the end of World War II, political exiles and war refugees have made up an increasingly large share of the U.S. immigration stream. That’s a new twist in the American immigrant story. But once they arrive, exiles and refugees tend to embrace the same opportunities — and face the same challenges — that confronted earlier generations of immigrants.

“My family didn’t really adjust very well to living in a different culture,” says Na. “You wanted to be accepted in school, but you know that you looked different and spoke a different language, so people were going to make judgments on you. You wanted to fit in, but you didn’t want to lose your background. It was really important to me and to my family to make sure that we remember our roots.”

Her father, the one-time entrepreneur, became an assembly-line worker in the United States, working in a paint factory. Like so many immigrants before him, he sacrificed so that his children could have better lives. He emphasized education — “All of us grew up with a mentality that we had to do well in school if we wanted to go far in life,” says Na — and made sure all seven of his children got a college education. Yet, he also ensured that his children grew up with a firm sense of their roots — even Kim, who to this day has never set foot on Cambodian soil.

“My parents made sure that we didn’t forget how to speak the language. A lot of people of my generation who grew up in Cambodian families don’t really identify with their ethnicity. But with the encouragement of my parents, we made sure that we were able to find that balance. They didn’t want American culture to diminish what they knew. It was something that they were proud of that they wanted to keep.”

And the memories of the past? “They don’t dwell on it,” says Na. “They remember what happened, and what they lost, but they’re grateful for what they have now.”

That part of the immigrant experience seems never to change.

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