Waiting for the flight to come.: Becoming Minnesotan

Male silhouette.
  • Name - Chamreun Tan
  • Age at interview - 37
  • Generation - First Generation American / Refugee
  • Date of Interview - 07.30.1992
  • Riverside scene, Cambodia, c.1990.  Photo courtesy Camboda.com.
    Children waiting in line for food, Cambodia, 2000s.  Photo courtesy Camboda.com.

    The Journey

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    Essential Question

    Coming to America: What did coming to America symbolize for this person?

    The Journey: How did this person get to the U.S.?

    Words to look for


    Background Information

    The Khmer are the people of Cambodia.  In 1974 a Communist group called the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, gained control of Cambodia.   The Khmer Rouge wanted to transform Cambodia into an agriculture-based classless society, and to remove all Western influence.  Educated people, professionals, city-dwellers, and any opponents of the Communists were quickly rounded up and placed into forced labor camps in the countryside.  Many Khmer were executed under this tyrannical regime, and many others died of starvation, exposure and exhaustion.  During the period of genocide from 1975-1979 approximately 1.4 million people were executed, and it is estimated that a total of 20% of the Cambodian population died.

    Once the Vietnamese army invaded Cambodia in 1979 and overthrew the Khmer Rouge, Khmer refugees began to flee the country to camps in neighboring Thailand.  Continued fighting by the Khmer Rouge, fears of persecution by the Vietnamese occupiers, and starvation caused by poor harvests caused refugees to continute to pour out of Cambodia, and the refugee camps quickly filled.  Newcomers were forced back to Cambodia or managed to stay in the camps illegally.  The U.S. began accepting refugees from Cambodia in 1979, and took 150,000 in that year alone. 

    To learn more about Khmer history and culture, visit our Khmer Community page.

    • Chapter 1
    • Chapter 2

    Download Chamreun Tan 1
    3:52 Minutes | 3.73Mb


    Narrator: Chamreun Tan (CT)

    Interviewer: Mark Frey (MF)

    CT:  I stay in Khao-I-Dang until December 1983.

    MF:  Okay. What did you do in Khao-I-Dang?

    CT:  I start working because I feel like so depressed there. When I was there the first few week I have nothing to do. Live like I live in the jail, because they have a fence around; you cannot go out anywhere. And I start working with the - they call IRC, International Rescue Committee.                

    MF:  Okay. And what kind of work were you doing with them?

    CT:  I was doing the lab technician. It's the – in blood bank. And I keep the blood – order blood for the hospital there. And I learn – I have some background about that. And then that time I cannot speak English very well, so I just mix with French and English all the time. And my friend over there teach me to how – and keep learning from them.

    MF:  Okay. Did you go to any other camps after Khao-I-Dang, or did you come directly to the United States after that?

    CT:  No. I, let's see, worked with the International Red Cross for a few month. And then in that time I file petition to come to United States. And later on I was accepted to come, and I went to work with the JVA, they call Joint Voluntary Agency, for interpreting to help people in the camp until December '83.

    They moved myself and my wife to a processing camp in Chonburi. In that time, the JVA want me to go back to work with them again in Khao-I-Dang. And they ask me to. And I say, yes, decide to go back to work, but leave my wife in the Chonburi camp for a while.

    And after I go back to work for a few - about a month, then they say that they want my wife to go to Philippines to learn English first, and leave me to work with them for six month. And I have arguing with them. I don't want to separate like that, and my wife doesn't want to do that. And then I break the contract. I didn't work. So they sent me and my wife to a new camp in Indonesia – they call it Galang camp – in, I think, the end of December 1983.

    MF:  How long were you there?

    CT:  I stayed there six month until June 1984. During six month I work with the United Nations. They called UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees].

    MF:  What kind of work were you doing for the UNHCR?

    CT:  They ask me to help prepare – check the list of the employee working there. And then they pay us a salary every week to the employee that work in the camp.

    Continues in Chapter 2

    Download Chamreun Tan 2
    1:15 Minutes | 1.21Mb


    Narrator: Chamreun Tan (CT)

    Interviewer: Mark Frey (MF)

    MF:  So then in 1984 you came to the United States?

    CT:  Yeah. I left Galang camp to United States, but stay one week in Singapore camp. They call a processing – waiting for the flight to come.

    MF:  And while you were in Indonesia and in Singapore, you were also – they were telling you, or teaching you about the United States and how things operate here.  Is that when you –

    CT:  Yeah. They have a class teaching three month for people.

    But I don't have a chance to learn all of that, because they say that I can speak English; I can understand. So they ask me to work, to help them. But eventually I got a job with the UNHCR. So they kind of go to the class only one hour a day. And beside that I just go to work.

    MF:  Did you fly directly to Minnesota when you left Singapore?

    CT:  Yes.

    MF:  And did you come to the Twin Cities, or Rochester, or where did they -

    CT:  I came to the Twin Cities, because my mother-in-law came here first.

    MF:  And so did you move in with your mother-in-law then?

    CT:  Yeah.

    Related Glossary Terms


    Noun:  An agreement between two or more parties, to perform a specific job or work order, often temporary or of fixed duration and usually governed by a written agreement.


    Verb:  To hand-in official papers to an office or person.  (files, filing, filed)

    lab technician

    Noun:  A person who is trained in assisting laboratory activities.


    Verb:  To function; to work.  (operates, operating, operated)


    Noun:  A formal, written request made to an official person or organized body, often containing many signatures.


    Noun:  The act of going through a series of set steps to get to a final result.


    Noun:  A fixed amount of money paid to a worker, usually measured on a monthly or yearly basis.


    Minnesota Historical Society. Becoming Minnesotan: Stories of Recent Immigrants and Refugees. September 2010. Institute of Museum and Library Services. [Date of access]. http://www.mnhs.org/immigration
    nid: 563