Family determined to 'never give up' finds freedom in US after harrowing escape from Cambodia

ByJayme Nicholas via Localish logo
Thursday, June 2, 2022
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Can you imagine trying to escape death with five young children in tow? That's exactly what Peng & Sou Hor did over 40 years ago.

CHICAGO -- Can you imagine trying to escape death with five young children in tow? That's exactly what Peng and Sou Hor did when they fled the brutality of Pol Pot's regime and the Cambodian genocide. Before Pol Pot, Peng and Sou were a happily married couple raising a family.

They owned a successful coffee shop and Peng was principal of a Chinese school. But all that changed when Pol Pot's murderous regime took over.

Peng and Sou recall the fear they felt every night praying they would not get that ominous knock on the door and then disappear forever like some of their neighbors. And they had a reason to be afraid. It's estimated that more than 2 million Cambodians died during this reign of terror.

Their eldest daughter Mary said her parents "risked it all," leaving everything behind in Cambodia, to find a path to freedom.

Sponsored by a church in Illinois, the family had to try to make it to safety at a Thailand refugee camp before their church sponsors could bring them to the United States.

They grabbed their five children and embarked on a harrowing journey to the camp, facing snakes, robbers, assassins and danger at every turn along the way.

Sou talks about how they struggled to keep their babies quiet so as not to attract attention. One of her friends had to use medication to keep her baby from crying.

Mary, who was 11 when she fled with her parents, talks about walking through the rushing currents of a river, holding on to her dad with one hand and grabbing her brother with the other hand.

"I just closed my eyes because it was too scary," she recalled.

To avoid being robbed, her mother hid a gold necklace under the belt of a younger daughter.

Sou lost track of her parents in war-torn Cambodia, and after 11 years of not seeing them, they were reunited at Chicago's O'Hare airport on their way to their new home is the suburbs of Chicago.

Peng got teary-eyed again as he talked about how, during this long-awaited reunion, "everyone cried." That gold bracelet was the only possession they had left when they came to Chicago.

Mary recalled her first impression of America, "I thought I was in heaven."

Sou and Peng, unable to speak English and with no money, cleaned peoples homes and did yard work to survive.

Fast forward 40 years later, their five children have become successful professionals and include two doctors, two engineers and an attorney.

Mary reminisces that even through their struggles in a new country, her parents taught them invaluable lessons: work hard, get an education, give back to the community and do good things. Those lessons didn't get lost on the next generation.

Peng and Sou's eldest granddaughter Kathleen explained how her grandparents inspired her to make them proud. She followed their example and worked hard to help children and become a pediatrician.

That gold necklace was the only possession they had left when they first came to this country. Peng and Sou get choked up and thank God that they went from near-death to freedom and were able to make their American dream came true!