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An escape from the Khmer Rouge; a life in Shoreview

WHY WE ARE HERE SERIESBy Steve Date | Monday, Dec. 10, 2007 Theary Kem is an accountant who lives with his family in Shoreview.


Theary Kem, 49, is an accountant for Travelers Insurance in St. Paul. He and his wife, Marida, and children Sophie and Alan live in a large house in an upper middle-class neighborhood in Shoreview.

This may not be the first image that comes to mind when you hear the words “immigrant” or “refugee,” but the life he lives is not atypical for people who have come from other countries and have been in the United States for more than 10 years. Over time, immigrants do as well or better than the average American on most economic and educational measures.

“They” pretty quickly become “us.”

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Kem’s story, which will be shown in four parts, is the first of an ongoing MinnPost video series — called “Why We Are Here” — about immigrants telling how and why they left home and came to Minnesota.

The series is not meant to be an examination of immigration policy, but simply a forum for those who are often not heard to be able to speak up and tell others about themselves. The stories are personal and direct. In the coming months, you’ll hear from immigrants who come from a variety of cultures and experiences. Each has an interesting story to tell.

‘I need to let it out’
Kem’s story is both horrifying and inspirational. It is painful for him to bring up memories of his life in Cambodia back in the 1970s, but he said he needs to talk about it. He still has flashbacks and sleepless nights, but realizes that holding the memories inside is not beneficial to him or to others.

“I don’t need to keep it in my chest. I need to let it out,” he said.

He has begun writing a memoir about his family and his experiences, with details provided by his one surviving family member, an older sister who still lives in Cambodia. His father and seven brothers and sisters either were executed or died of starvation in a Khmer Rouge labor camp in 1977 and 1978. Another brother died in an accident.

Like Kem, Cambodia is still trying to recover from events that happened 30 years ago. Top officials from leader Pol Pot’s regime have been arrested and are finally going to trial. Kem said he hopes that people around the world will take notice and pay attention to other places where genocide goes on today.

Kem said he is telling his family’s story to encourage other immigrants and refugees to speak up about their own pasts so they can heal. He also wants others to know “why we are here, why we came, why we left our countries.”

But before you hear Kem tell his story, you should know something about me. I am a teacher in the Minneapolis public schools, and a part-time video journalist for MinnPost. About 90 languages are spoken in the households of Minneapolis students. During my years at Windom School I have come to know families from more than a dozen different countries. I have also taught English as a second language to adults at the Lehmann Center in Minneapolis. The stories I have heard from immigrants are powerful, moving and sometimes frightening.

But they are always stories of hope.

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Tuesday: Life in Khmer Rouge labor camp.