Peuo Tuy, an award-winning Khmer-American poet, told her story, “Past, Present, Future Refugee Experience in America,” to a group of students in the SHINE program classes with Associate Professor of Russian John Bartle and Britt Hysell, director of the ESOL program, on April 5.

A survivor of the Khmer Genocide and a first-generation Cambodian refugee in America, Tuy began her presentation by showing a short clip on the complex history of Cambodia beginning with what the country endured during the West’s engagement in the war in Indochina up through the genocide.

An immigrant leaves her homeland to find greener grass. A refugee leaves her homeland because the grass is burning under her feet…

Born in 1979 in the middle of the genocide, she fled the country with her family when she was four-years-old. Tuy lived in three refugee camps in Thailand and the Philippines, sometimes living with up to eight other people. She remembered not being able to eat and being scared that if she dared touch the food in the refugee camp she would get killed. Her family was separated: in Cambodia she still has a half-brother, two sisters, and other relatives.

Starting a new life in America in 1983, Tuy grew up with confusion about her identity: Was she Khmer or American? Was it the Vietnam War or the American War? She wanted to be a true American and refused to comply with her cultural identity as a Khmer girl. She wrote about this in one of her poems: “Skin Lighteners,” talking about how she tried to bleach her skin to look more “American.”

At Hunter College where she received her undergraduate degree in Africana studies, Tuy realized that identity confusion was not the only thing she brought to America as a refugee. She realized that for years she had suffered from depression and PTSD as a result of the war and the genocide. She wrote a poem about her nightly dream of her and her family being rescued from the battlefield in an emergency helicopter.

As an international student from Vietnam, I can sympathize with her identity struggles. However, I can only imagine her suffering when she fled her country, leaving behind members of her family and her childhood innocence. I came to the United States to go to school, but she came to save her life. Her story reminds me of the difference between an immigrant and a refugee: “An immigrant leaves her homeland to find greener grass. A refugee leaves her homeland because the grass is burning under her feet…”

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