Seen & Survived: Stockton project gathers stories of first-generation Cambodian refugees

By Kevin Parrish – Record Staff Writer.

STOCKTON – A diet of lizards, roots, crickets and snakes. A village full of corpses. Months and months of hiding. The fear of being discovered and killed.

Hann Soy’s formative childhood years – from the ages of 8 to 12 – were spent in the jungle between Cambodia and Thailand. He experienced things most people don’t even want to imagine.

That was in the late 1970s.

Today, Soy is an ambassador of goodwill in the lives of Stockton’s troubled young people, a 43-year-old community outreach worker for Lodi Unified School District with a bewildering personal history.

How Soy survived Pol Pot and the murderous Khmer Rouge regime – eventually making his way to America – is a story of perseverance, bravery and good fortune. It is the latest immigrant’s tale, history still being written.

Multiply Soy’s story by the thousands, and a sense of Stockton’s Cambodian community begins to emerge.

There have been scatter-shot efforts by individuals to tell the tale of horror, but, until now, no one has taken a comprehensive look at the collective experience.

That’s about to change.

An ambitious, first-of-its-kind oral history project is under way. It is designed to capture the amazing, courageous stories of Stockton’s first-generation Cambodian refugees.

The undertaking is officially known as the Stockton Cambodian Oral History Project. It is being funded by a $7,500 grant from the Stockton Arts Commission and a recent $10,000 grant by Cal Humanities.

It is an all-volunteer venture involving Pacific, San Joaquin Delta College, The Record, the San Joaquin County Historical Society and Stagg High School. A dozen Stagg students are involved in videotaping interviews.

“It’s a piece of history that we all should share with the community,” Soy said. “It’s very rare to be able to talk to people who still have flashbacks of a terrible time.”

Soy provided one of the most compelling interviews for the project, which hopes to encompass an exhibit of artifacts and photographs, school and community presentations and a multimedia website.

A documentary video focused on Stockton’s Cambodian New Year celebration will premiere in May at University of the Pacific’s Janet Leigh Theatre. Eventually, a more comprehensive film is planned.

At 8, Soy was torn from his family by the Khmer Rouge. After months of slave labor (“I saw hundreds of young boys and girls my age die in the rice fields”), he escaped. Soy returned to his village and found his parents, weighing about 60 pounds each, barely alive.

For the next 31/2 years, the family of five (“We have a 1 percent chance to live, but we do”) hides in the jungle.

Up to 2 million others didn’t. They starved, they were murdered, they were killed by land mines, they got sick and died.

Eventually, Soy’s family found their way to refugee camps in Thailand (“I cried, and I walked into the shelter”) and the Philippines (“We have freedom”). After five more years, the family was approved to go to the United States, eventually settling in Stockton.

The details of Soy’s story would fill a book, and the multitalented man has started a manuscript that he has titled “Away, But Not Apart.” He also spends much of his time speaking before school assemblies and using his life story to help steer troubled young people in the right direction.

He is an accomplished artist who, without formal training, has learned how to bring a canvas alive with stark, sharp lines and colors.

Soy’s dramatic journey is already recorded as part of the oral-history project. There are as many as 16,000 Cambodians living in Stockton, 5 percent of the city’s population. The city has the fifth-largest Cambodian community in the United States and the second-largest in California (Long Beach has 50,000).

Stockton project organizers hope to conduct as many as 60 interviews.

“We just have this amazing, extraordinary population of people here that the larger community might not appreciate, or know, their stories,” said Elizabeth Roberts, project director and a copy editor with The Record. “These people have turned into such assets.

“They personify what it means to be an American.”

One of Soy’s concerns is that younger, American-born Cambodians are losing their connection to their culture. “I hope this helps open up communication,” he said. “I wanted to share my story. I hope what I said can make this project stronger. I am not afraid.”

In late 2011, Soy added another chapter to his life story when he became an American citizen – one year after his boss, British-born Louise Roachford-Gould, took the citizenship oath.

Roachford-Gould is principal at Creekside Elementary School, where Soy has his office.

“He’s a national treasure,” she said.


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