What Being The Daughter Of A Genocide Survivor Taught Me About Life

by Janine Wolf

This month marks 40 years since the lives of my mom, family and more than 2 million other Cambodians were changed forever.

The 1975-1979 Khmer Rouge regime led to the deaths of more than 1.7 million people from execution, disease, starvation and overwork, according to the Documentation Center of Cambodia.

When you first look at my mother, you would never guess her tragic past.

But, despite losing both her parents at a very young age, witnessing the deaths of many people and almost losing her own life, she is one of the strongest people I know.

I have grown up hearing my mom's [horrific] stories, but not until recently have they really sunk in.

I have always been incredibly fortunate. I had a peaceful childhood, a chance at higher education and a loving family.

But, like many others who grow up in wealthy, industrialized countries, I experience first-world problems: painfully slow WiFi, missing the happy hour at Dunkin Donuts and not finding anything "edible" in the fridge.

It's easy to take even the simplest of things for granted.

I asked my mom what kept her going throughout all these years and what made her the woman she is today.

She said,

"I did not want to die; my dreams and hopes for the future is what kept me moving."

Here are a few more things my mother taught me about life:

When You Feel Like Giving Up, Don't

Instead of spending her time learning in school like other kids her age, at just 7 years old, my mom was forced to work in child labor. She dug out large root trees, carried heavy rocks on top of her head and worked the rice fields.

She would work all day building up an immense hunger, only to come back to a bowl of five to eight kernels of rice and hot water.

On a very hot day, she walked far away from her camp in search of something edible. She spotted a hole in the ground and ran excitedly toward it thinking it may be a frog. My mother placed her hand inside the hole, grabbed onto something soft, and yanked it out.

To her horror, she realized she held a snake in her hand. My mother screamed and ran for her life toward a hill on the open field. But the horror did not stop there.

The top of the hill was scattered with rotten human bodies. Once again, she ran for her life. The next day, she found herself with a strong fever.

As she was lying on the hard dirt floor of her family's straw hut, she thought that this was it, and she would finally be free of all her sufferings.

But, then she remembered her parents and her siblings; she had to be strong for them.

She did not know how many days passed, but to her surprise, the fever left. My mom was sure she was going to die, but she fought through it.

When life seems to be at its most difficult, it often appears easiest to simply give up. But, this is the weak way out.

Every time I am faced with a bump, I think back to what my mother felt that one night. It gives me strength and turns whatever burden of mine at the time into a thing of the past.

Family Is Everything

My mom witnessed the deaths of her own mother and father.

During the peak of the genocide, my grandmother became very sick. There was only a limited supply of medicine available at the time, some of which my grandmother was given. Unfortunately, it was equivalent to poison because it had been expired.

She died later that day. My mom was only 10.

Fast forward seven years, after my family entered Germany as refugees, to when my grandfather was diagnosed with lung cancer.

After the surgery, he told my mother to thank the doctors and to make sure they knew that he couldn't die yet; his children still needed him.

He did not make it through that night.

Then, more than ever, my mom understood how important family is. This is something she made very clear to me and my sister as we grew up.

Life Is Beautiful

My mother is the epitome of strength.

She experienced more than a lifetime of awful situations, and they only made her stronger. She persevered and achieved her dreams of an education and a career; she became a mechanical engineer of machine design.

On behalf of my mother, grandparents and family, I hope this story inspires you to make sweet, sweet lemonade with all the sour lemons that may be hurled at you.

Every individual's fight is different, but if it there's one thing my mom has taught me, it's that life is too precious for anyone to give up on it.