One precious year of study rewards refugee's struggle


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."

The first snapshots of Mr. Ung on the campus show him standing in snow. "I am in trouble with this situation," Mr. Ung wrote in a letter a few days after he arrived. "My body is react to [the weather] when I go out. I believe I will be alright soon."

He was. Mr. Ung now strolls the campus in a T-shirt and baseball cap, with the cool assurance of the younger Americans at this 2,000-student school. But he looks at the place through different eyes. He appraises the land as one might study a stranger. He is intrigued by the rocky Pennsylvania soil, the variety of trees, the reshaped contours of man-made hills. Spring's fecundity amazed him, and he is eager to see about these stories of multicolored leaves in the autumn.

Most of his hours are spent with textbooks in his dormitory room. In the first semester, he earned a solid B average. He is taking college-level courses in business administration, an interest he gained from one of his old textbooks.

"We have no idea about this business," Mr. Ung said of his courses in marketing, economics and computer science. "But when our country gets peace, we will need it. We may not be good at the business, but at least we will know something about it."

"I've been criticized that they are studying computer science or business management," Sister Virginia said of the Cambodian students. "But it's not just the information that's important. I would like them to know there are other ways to organize, to plan, to set goals. It's the principles I want them to leave with."

They must leave. Sister Virginia has sought assurances from each Cambodian student that he will return to his camp and not seek to stay in the United States. Mr. Ung recognizes the obligation.

"My students need more education," he said. "They don't have the chance to go to study abroad. So one or two people who do have a chance to go out have to go back and teach 200 or 300 people."

He dreams of returning here for another year's study to earn an associate's degree. But that would require another fund-raising effort, and "I don't know how that would happen."

He misses his family. His wife has sent him a cassette letter, and in his small dorm room he listens to the tape of his four children, ages 4 to 11, each promising to study hard "just like you, father."

"I don't have property to give my children," Mr. Ung said. "But I can interest them in studying. Only that way can they get more ideas."

When he arrived at the refugee camp 12 years ago, he thought it would be a short stay until Cambodia was freed.

Despite the nominal withdrawal of the Vietnamese and sputtering peace talks in Paris, the 170,000 refugees at Site 2 now seem no closer to returning to Cambodia, and his four children are no closer to the homeland they have never seen.

"I want to get an education to build Cambodia," said Bun Than Ung. "I don't want to get an education just to build up Site 2."

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