At Tuesday’s Lowell Sun Salute to Women event, the three award recipients who addressed the crowd were all excellent and inspirational. The remarks of one of them, Bopha Malone, were especially moving and profound. Bopha kindly shared them with me for posting here:
[remarks by Bopha Malone] – Over the past few weeks, a devastating, and shocking picture has been on my mind. It’s a picture of a body of a small boy, no older than 3, washed up on the shore – a life destroyed by circumstances he and his family couldn’t control. That boy was Aylan Kurdi, a little boy who drowned as his family tried to escape the Syrian conflict. This picture prompted me to become more knowledgeable about the horrific situation facing Syrian refugees today.
As a former refugee, it made me somber and sad, and incredibly thankful that my family was able to survive our escape from Cambodia to Thailand years ago – when I was the same age as Aylan. It made me reflect about my own family’s journey, and how far we and our fellow survivors have come since.
Imagine what life is like for someone fleeing from their home country.
Imagine living through such atrocity where your own people starved you, tortured you and killed the people you love.
Imagine the trauma of losing everything, of living in fear that if you say or do the wrong thing, that you will be harmed.
Imagine having to sacrifice everything to escape, walking your 3 year old through the jungle in the dark, praying that you wouldn’t step on any landmines, begging your child to stop crying so you don’t get caught by patrolling soldiers and killed.
These were some one of my earliest memories as a child.
After a couple of days, we finally reached Thailand, where we were placed in a refugee camp. Although it was better, it still was not safe. Instead of hearing lullabies, we’d go to bed most nights being scared by the sounds of gunfire and bombings. Most nights we’d go to bed listening to our parents talking about their escape plans – which child they would take and where they would meet if they were to be separated. It became normal for us to run into a hole we had dug beneath the floor of our home to hide from the Thai soldiers when they came raiding each night. We lived like this for five or six years, praying every day that we would have the opportunity to immigrate to America.
When we finally made it to the U.S. in 1989, it was a blessing. But the adjustment was not easy.
We settled in Harrisburg PA, where we were one of the only two Cambodian families in town. I was 9 years old, starting second grade. I stuck out like a sore thumb. The only English words I knew were “yes” and “no”.
I was very fortunate to have people who helped me overcome that. Caring teachers spent extra time to teach me English. They even came to our home to show our family what Thanksgiving and Christmas were all about.
It was even tougher for my parents to adjust and find jobs to support us.
We later resettled in Lynn, where we lived in a tough neighborhood. My parents had to work all the time, so my brother and I were often on our own. I adapted to American culture and began to speak and understand less Khmer. Because my parents were very traditional, they were very strict, especially with me because I was a girl. They wanted me to stay home, do housework, stay away from boys, and study. I now understand that what my parents did was out of love and wanting me to be successful. But at that point, due to our lack of communication and not understanding each other’s world, I thought they were unfair. Not knowing who to turn to, I felt depressed, intimidated, and alone.
Luckily, when I got to high school, I learned about Girls Inc. Because it was a safe place I could go to afterschool — and because it was for girls only — my parents were open to allowing me to attend. Initially I joined the teen program just wanting to get out of the house, but what I learned there and the experiences that I received changed my life and helped me to become the woman I am today.
At Girls Inc., I had women mentors who understood my struggles and helped me to overcome my challenges and fears. They saw potential in me that I didn’t see in myself. They took the time to listen, and to encourage me to be brave. They showed me what it takes to be a successful woman, and they empowered me to help others. With their support, I gained confidence, I was happy, and I no longer felt alone.
With the help of Girls Inc., I was able to apply to and receive a full scholarship to college. I began to appreciate my Cambodian roots more, and to reconnect with my language and culture.
I have been very fortunate to have had many opportunities given to me, and I learned the importance of giving back and helping others, as so many people have helped me in my life.
After college, I spent a year doing volunteer work in Cambodia, where I helped open a school for disadvantaged children. When I returned, Carol Duncan of Girls Inc. in Lowell introduced me to George Duncan and Enterprise Bank, and I became a part of the Enterprise family.
At Enterprise, I’ve not only learned about all aspects of the banking world, but I’ve had an opportunity to get involved with this wonderful city and our vibrant Cambodian community. Most of all, I am inspired every day to do what I love doing – helping people.
One example of this is my involvement with the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association. As part of the CMAA board, I’m a part of helping other Cambodians and minorities adjust to new life in a new country. I know how scary it is when you don’t know the language, the people, the culture, and where to turn to for guidance, and it makes me so happy to be able to return in some small part the kindness I received as a child.
This kindness was never more evident than last summer, when a devastating fire struck our community. The entire city of Lowell – Cambodians, city officials, and community organizations – came together to make sure that those affected by the fire had everything they needed to get back on their feet. I was incredibly proud to be a part of this citywide effort.
This past winter, I had an opportunity, as part of the City of Lowell delegation, to visit Cambodia. There, for the first time since I was a little girl, I returned to the refugee camp on the Thai border where I spent part of my childhood. It was a very emotional experience. Seeing the poor conditions that we lived in, remembering the fear we endured, reminded me of how fortunate I have been and how thankful I am for my parents’ courage, and the sacrifices that they made to give our family freedom, and a better life.
The experience made me more determined than ever to do all I can to improve the lives of Cambodians and other refugees in the Lowell area. As the story of Alyan Kurdi reminded us, every refugee has his or her own story, and is deserving of respect, understanding, and care.
Thank you again for this recognition. I look forward to continuing to do all that I can to help make Lowell an even stronger and better place for us to live and work.