February 7, 2018
Our work couldn’t be possible without the generous support of fundraisers around the world.
People like Serey and Sokhanno Mao.
One day on his lunch break, Serey Mao chanced upon the story of Scott Neeson and CCF online.
“Tears were streaming down my face. That someone would give up his life to help our Cambodian children meant the world to me,” he says.
Serey and his wife Sokhanno are survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime. When the regime fell, they left Cambodia and relocated to the US to start a new life.
But their homeland was always in their hearts and when Serey came across CCF’s work, the couple knew they had found a way to help the country they left behind. So they reached out to Scott to see how they could help.
To date, together with Bonna Weinstein and Nary Po, they have raised more than $150,000 through their group, CCFoundation, by holding fundraisers in their home city of Philadelphia.
At the end of last year, they visited Cambodia to see the good work that their money is doing and be recognised for their efforts.
Their dedication to CCF stems from a deep love for Cambodia and belief in CCF’s mission.
My childhood was filled with laughter and love. Raised in a middle class family in Phnom Penh, my father was a businessman and his income enabled us to live comfortably. Our family was tight-knit—all ten of us siblings loved to spend time together.
I was fortunate enough to go to a good school and I never thought twice about what an education meant and how lucky I was to be receiving one. I recognised that there was poverty in Phnom Penh, but it was not part of my world.
I had an inkling that things were changing in my country when I was in my teens because tension blanketed the city like a thick cloud. My life changed drastically when Pol Pot took control of the country. Within a short week, the world as I knew it crumbled before my eyes.
We were forbidden to continue school and driven from Phnom Penh to one of the surrounding provinces. One by one, the Khmer Rouge soldiers came for members of my family because we were part of the educated class.
It began with my eldest brothers who were both government officials. At that time you could register to rebuild Phnom Penh after the war, which is what they did. Unfortunately, this was a tactic so they could lure government officials from hiding and kill them. This is how I lost my brothers and their wives and children.
One of my other brothers was a nurse and my sister-in-law knew that Pol Pot would come for him eventually. This terrified her and she couldn’t face this, so she hung herself.
Another brother was taken to the province to work and died from malnourishment and exhaustion.
I was separated from my siblings and parents and made to work 10-15 hours per day with little food. Surrounded by strangers, my heart ached for my family, for something familiar. Day in and day out, hunger would grip my body and eventually my body began to shut down. I developed an abscess on my hip. It was removed without anesthesia or antibiotics and I was left for dead, but by some miracle, I survived.
By the time the regime fell, I had lost 15 members of my family. I became numb and hardened—alive but feeling nothing. A refugee camp in Battambang served as my home and after gaining back my strength, I worked as a translator in the camp. This is where I met my husband Serey.
The Pol Pot regime took over when I was 21. My father had a ferry business and taught me skills in manual labor from an early age. However, he also taught me how to read and write and I was able to attend school. During the communist regime, we quickly learned to feign intelligence, in the hope that you can fool the soldiers into sparing your life. Because I could do manual labor and work adequately in the field, I was able to convince the soldiers that I wasn’t educated. I truly believe this is what saved my life.
Our family ended up at a refugee camp in Battambang after the regime fell and this is where I met Sokhanno. We fell deeply in love in such a short time—leaning on each other to build our strength back up, both mentally and physically.
During this chaotic time, many Khmer people were displaced and living in refugee camps waiting to be sponsored to go to other countries. A family in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, sponsored Sokhanno but unfortunately, I was sponsored to go to Australia.
I was so in love with Sokhanno and being split up from the one person who gave me hope was painful. I remember spending $3.80—my monthly salary in Australia—just so we could talk on the phone. As luck should have it, I was able to relocate to America. With only a visitor visa, I couldn’t work legally, so I did odd jobs that were paid under the table. It didn’t matter though, because Sokhanno and I were together.
America had always conjured images of bright lights and skyscrapers, so I was surprised when I landed in Broken Arrow and was greeted with nothing but farmland. Those first few months in America were difficult. I missed Serey and I longed for the comfort of family, but I also had the drive to pick up the pieces and make the best of my new life.
I began working as a housekeeper at a hospital and went to night school to get my GED (General Educational Development)—determined to complete my high school education. My life was all about work, which helped take my mind off Cambodia. When Serey was finally able to relocate to America, it was a dream come true and I felt that maybe, just maybe, things would be okay.
We married in 1983 and applied for permanent residency in the US.
Sokhanno and I were determined not to let what happened to us, take away our future. Armed with freedom and each other, we made a move to Connecticut where we both found work at the same organization. Yearning for some semblance of a normal life, we took on second jobs in the hopes that we could get a house and start a family.
That was 30 years ago. Since then, Sokhanno and I have worked diligently on our careers—working our way up the corporate ladder by keeping our heads down and working twice as hard as those around us. Feeling like you’ve been given a second chance gives you focus and drive. We are now living the American dream in Philadelphia. We have two beautiful daughters—aged 30 and 24—who are the lights of our life and a reminder that children bring hope. We remind them every day how lucky they are to live in America and to not to take life for granted.
The memories of our adolescence will never be forgotten. We still have nightmares of those times, but part of the healing process has been to give back to our home country. We believe that children are Cambodia’s hope for a better future, which is why Scott’s story resonated so deeply with us.
CCF does incredible work and we are honoured to be a part of this wonderful family, bringing hope to our country through these precious children.
We see our younger selves in these children, because we were once where they were—without family, food or possessions. We want to show them that there are people out there who care. Anything is possible when you are given a second chance.
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