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In March 1975, Niborom Young was on a student exchange to New Zealand. She had just posted a barrage of Kiwiana souvenirs to Cambodia for all her family members to celebrate their New Year.
All the parcels came back to her though.
“The whole lot came back in May with a stamp ‘service suspended’,” Niborom says, tears in her eyes as she recalls receiving them.
“They told me that the country was closed. There were gifts for everybody, my mother, my father, brothers, sisters, cousins; everyone got something from New Zealand.”
The Khmer Rouge had seized power and begun to implement policies that shunned Western culture, education, and religion and shut Cambodia off from the outside world.
Niborom was on the other side of the border when this happened, having left for New Zealand only months earlier, waving goodbye to her friends and family, expecting to see them in 12 months.
She never saw any of them again.
“I knew before I left that there were a lot of bombs and rockets in [Phnom Penh] and everyday somebody would get killed. But I never thought [the Khmer Rouge] would takeover and I always thought I’d go back home. I felt so devastated and so empty.”
Niborom cries as she shares stories from her past and can vividly remember how she felt, alone in a foreign country. She and the other three students on the exchange programme were granted residency by the New Zealand Government until there was some sort of resolution to what was happening in Cambodia.
It wasn’t long after this that Niborom met her now husband Victor.
“He was a customs officer, but I wasn’t bringing anything illegal into the country,” she laughs.
Instead they met over an awkward encounter regarding a sandwich she’d accidentally thrown away while working in the dining area of the Wellington Airport.
“He asked where his sandwich was and I told him it was in my bin and he said ‘I paid for that’. He went to my boss and she started laughing at him.”
There were no lasting hard feelings though and the pair began dating.
Niborom’s heart and mind were still partly in Cambodia and she was desperate to find news of her family members. Upon hearing that Cambodian refugees were arriving in Thailand and sheltering in a refugee camp on the border, she put her hand up to volunteer as an interpreter in the camp.
“I didn’t want to say later on ‘oh I wish I’d gone.’”
Niborom worked in the Thai refugee camps for a total of six months with the International Rescue Committee and Red Cross, hoping to find her family or hear news of them. She says that seeing her fellow countrymen in such a dire situation was traumatising.
“We couldn’t stay in the camps at night and when we’d leave, all the people would stand there waving to us and I would say ‘see you tomorrow’ but sometimes tomorrow wouldn’t come for them.”
Tears roll freely down Niborom’s cheeks as she recounts stories from her time as a volunteer and the search for her family that came to a sudden and horrific end.
Niborom’s brother had been an English teacher, one of the professions the Khmer Rouge regime blacklisted when it assumed power. He’d been sent to work in a paddy field and had stepped on a metal spike in the ground.
These metal jacks with three-inch spikes were a weapon commonly used by the Khmer Rouge and littered the ground in the countryside. The spike went like a knife through his sole and right up his leg.
“He couldn’t go to work the next day and there was no medication, no doctor, no nothing,” says Niborom.
“My mother tried to pull it out and it was bleeding and bleeding. The next day they came to get him for work and he said he couldn’t go, his leg was all swollen up. They told him that if he couldn’t work they didn’t want to waste their food and they’d take him to another place.”
Niborom’s mother knew what that meant – if soldiers took you away, you would never come back. She begged them not to take her son and they told her she could go with them.
So she did.
“I was told they usually took people to the jungle and clubbed them to death because they didn’t want to waste their bullets.”
This was all recounted to Niborom through a friend of a friend in the refugee camp who had lived near her family in Cambodia. She was devastated by the news and it was the last she ever heard of her family.
It wasn’t unusual for families to be split during this period, people were moved all over the country with no means of communication. Combined with the fact that many were fleeing and claiming asylum, it was next to impossible for people to stay in touch with each other.
Creating new hope in New Zealand
Niborom returned to New Zealand and was determined to do her bit to help here in Aotearoa. To say she’s had a huge impact on the resettled Cambodian community is an understatement.
As a Cambodian familiar with the New Zealand way of life, she recognised how helpful she could be to refugees arriving in the country. She began helping people with day-to-day tasks such as school enrolments and shopping.
There were plenty of cultural differences and obstacles to navigate, Niborom recounts how she had to alleviate peoples fear about leaving their money with a bank.
“Many of them had never had a bank account, they weren’t accustomed to leaving their cash with people they’d never met,” she says.
“Others had left their money in a bank but it had disappeared during the war so they didn’t want to put it in the bank in case the bank ran away with their money. They would hide money in small drawers or under their mattress.”
Niborom had a diploma from Victoria University which meant she could teach English as a second language. Her lessons in New Zealand life soon became lessons in English, particularly for women with young children.
“Most of the Cambodian refugees were women and children because the men were taken away,”she says. “They had a lot to learn but they always brought their day-to-day experiences back to class and we could learn from them.”
Niborom formed close relationships with many of the people she helped settle and in 1993 she recorded an oral history project with some of the women.
“My aim was to encourage those women who survived to tell of their journey because no one had heard these stories before,” she says.
“Even their children and grandchildren had no idea how their mum or grandma got here. The adults who survived don’t want to tell their story, they want to bury it. Their children have a long life and good future and good life ahead of them so they don’t want to dwell on it.”
It took 22 years for Niborom to translate the oral histories and turn them into a book called I tried not to cry.
“I wanted to do something about Cambodian refugees here to thank people for giving us hope and the chance at a new life and freedom, that’s the most important thing.”
Niborom is adamant that New Zealand is her home now, though she has returned to her country of birth for a visit, an event that caused mixed emotions.
“The Cambodia I knew was gone, everything was gone,” she says. “The country had changed, all the nice houses, my house, it was all gone.”
The events of the 1970s shaped Niborom’s life more than she ever could’ve expected. New Zealand is her home now and she’s proud of what she and thousands of other Cambodians have contributed to the country.
“[Refugees are] hard workers. When they come here they bring only their lives and will do anything to survive here, to contribute, to make friends. We share our culture, we bring our culture with us, adapt to new culture and bring our own too.”
Niborom Young was awarded the Queen’sService Medal (QSM) for her work with the Cambodian community and is a Justice of the Peace. She is part of New Zealand Red Cross’ Kiwi Legends series,profiling people from refugee backgrounds who now call New Zealand home.