One precious year of study rewards refugee's struggle

June 09, 1991|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Sun Staff Correspondent

GWYNEDD VALLEY, Pa. -- His father and brother were executed. His baby sister starved to death, and Bun Than Ung had to claim he did not know them to live.

He was forced to watch murders and torture, afraid that any moment he might be the next victim. When he finally could flee after four years, he made a perilous escape from his country, only to find the safety of a refugee camp turned into virtual imprisonment for the next 12 years.

What must he have thought, this 34-year-old Cambodian, as he listened last week to an instructor explain "presumption of innocence" and other niceties of justice in a law class at a pastoral Pennsylvania college?

"It was strange," Mr. Ung admitted. "I wondered why we do not have such a system in my country."

It is a relevant question for Mr. Ung. In December, after a year at the Gwynedd-Mercy College, he must return to the refugee camp on the Cambodia-Thailand border.

He must return to the muddy city of bamboo and thatch homes, where disputes are settled by tossing a grenade into a hut in the dark of the night, where robbers roam in bands with automatic weapons, and where justice is as foreign as hope.

"I need to take some of these ideas back so we can prepare for the future," he said. "All my life, I have seen people die and people hurt. If they have some kind of idea of law, maybe that would stop."

Mr. Ung's presence on a college campus here is the product of two factors: an unusual program at this Roman Catholic college near Philadelphia and his own extraordinary motivation.

The program came about when Sister Virginia Hasson, an administrator here who has worked extensively in the Cambodian refugee camps, persuaded the college to bring several refugees to study for a year.

"The idea is to expose them to different things, different people, to let them know there are different ways of doing things," said Sister Virginia.

Mr. Ung's participation came because he saw an opportunity for learning and pursued it. Such pursuit has marked much of his life. In desperate surroundings with no safety or security, Bun Than Ung has looked to learning for a better future.

In 1987, in the small thatched hut he had built for his wife and four children, he carefully opened a red corduroy bag and laid out for a reporter his most prized possessions: an odd assortment of old textbooks in English and Khmer.

Those books were part of his own story, he explained. When he was a teen-ager and Americans were in Cambodia in the early 1970s, Bun Than began to study English. In 1975, when the Communist Khmer Rouge took over the country, he had to hide his identity and his knowledge to survive.

His father and brother, both in the army, were killed during the murderous regime of Pol Pot.

His family was dispersed; Bun Than fled to the country and passed himself off as a farmer during the four years of forced labor and systematic genocide under the Khmer Rouge.

When Vietnamese troops toppled the Pol Pot regime in 1979, Bun Than fled to the Thai border for safety. As he moved from camp to camp to escape shelling, he carried with him only a bag of clothes, salt and rice, as well as his red bag of books.

"If I lost the books, it would be like a soldier losing his gun," he explained as he showed them off.

The refugees finally were settled in 1985 in a huge camp named Site 2 inside Thailand. There, Mr. Ung used his limited English and expanded on it.

He offered to help interpret for relief workers and gradually began teaching others -- all while spending nights poring over English books under a mosquito netting by his straw mat. He now runs a busy school in the camp's only two-story building.

When he heard Sister Virginia was taking refugee students -- the first two went to Gwynedd-Mercy in 1989, and two more followed last year -- Mr. Ung leaped at a chance to acquire more knowledge.

She told him that two others already had been selected and that she had no more money to pay his way. But the college would waive his tuition if he could somehow raise nearly $9,000 for transportation, room and board.

It was a daunting sum for a refugee confined to a camp where money is scarce and where he was not paid for his work. But through a priest he smuggled letters of appeal to foreigners he had met over the years as an interpreter, and slowly he raised the money.

"Bun Than is here because he wanted to be," said Sister Virginia. "He went after it."

About half the money came from the Rev. Frank Moan, a Jesuit who runs an education organization, Refugee Voices, out of Washington, D.C.

"I think it's a worthwhile investment," Father Moan said. "He's one of an outstanding number of people who really do everything they can to improve their situation."

Sister Virginia picked him up at the airport in New York in January. On the drive to the college, "he had a million, million questions," she said. "He is very curious, very interested in learning new things."

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