British Columbia

'The wounds never go away': Baby Y-Dang named after Cambodian refugee camp remembers Canadian arrival

2020 marks 40 years since Y-Dang Troeung was named after the Cambodian refugee camp where she was born and her family arrived in Canada under the federal government's private sponsorship program.

40 years later UBC assistant professor Y-Dang Troeung advocates on behalf of new refugees to Canada

11-month-old Y-Dang Troeung with her father Heung Troeung on their arrival in Goderich, Ontario after their family fled a Cambodian refugee camp in 1980. (Submitted by Y-Dang Troeung)

Y-Dang Troeung's arrival in Canada, nearly four decades ago, came with the most official of welcomes.

Then-prime minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau shook her father's hand as she — not yet a year old — bounced in her mother's arms, eyes wide at the camera flashes.

They had just landed in Canada and had been shuttled immediately to Ottawa for the photo-op, to be the faces of a wave of refugees then arriving from Cambodia.

The little girl Y-Dang, in pink, was named after the Cambodian refugee camp, Khao I-Dang, where she was born in January 1980 as guerrilla warfare raged across her homeland. 

While her family's initial welcome to Canada was full of smiles, Troeung's memories as a young refugee in her new homeland had a darker side.

It was marked by "cruel racism" and pressure to assimilate that existed parallel to the outpouring of generosity from strangers who would become neighbours and friends.

As the 40th anniversary of her family's arrival approaches, Troeung looks back on that experience, and the help today's refugees still need.

The Troeung family poses for 1980 photo at Khao I-Dang refugee camp, near Cambodia's border with Thailand, hoping someone would sponsor them to Canada. (Submitted by Y-Dang Troeung)

Parliament Hill welcome 

On a snowy Dec. 3, 1980, Troeung, her parents and two older brothers landed in Montreal as part of the Canadian government's Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program, which allowed refugees to settle here with support and funding from private or joint government-private sponsorship. 

The Troeungs were sponsored by St. Peter's Catholic Church, in Goderich, Ontario. 

Heung Troeung, his wife Yok, their two sons and baby Y-Dang arrived in Canada on Dec. 3, 1980. (Submitted by Y-Dang Troeung)

Their country had been gripped by years of strife: civil war, U.S. bombs, and starvation under the communist Khmer Rouge.

In 1979, Vietnam invaded and overthrew the Khmer Rouge, and the chaos that followed led to the death and displacement of millions of Cambodians.

"My parents survived the bombing of Cambodia, the genocide that ensued afterwards and they fled to a refugee camp on the border of Cambodia and Thailand where my mother gave birth to me," said Troeung. 

By the time Troeung's family entered Canada 60,000 refugees had come from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. 

Their arrival was marked with a ceremony at Parliament Hill and the meeting with Trudeau, who Troeung describes as "the man who is the centre-piece of my family's postcard perfect photography commemorating our arrival."

Watch: Pierre Elliott Trudeau welcomes Troeung's family in December 1980

From the CBC archives: Former prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau welcomes a family of Cambodian refugees in 1980. 1:47

Life in Goderich

From Ottawa, the Troeungs' sponsors took them to start a new life in Goderich, west of Kitchener-Waterloo. 

Troeung says it was very hard for her parents to resettle in a town of 7,000 people even though the sponsors were extraordinarily kind and generous.

"The experience is always mixed in those kinds of circumstances," said Troeung who now lives with her husband and their two-year-old son in Vancouver. 

"We also encountered cruel racism at times and challenges that my mother and father faced at work."

Troeung recounted stories about her mother being bullied at the pen factory where she worked because her colleagues felt she worked too hard and made them look bad. 

As well, she says, her brothers would come home from high school beaten and bloody, attacked because they were the only students of Asian descent.  

Watch as Troeung describes life for her refugee family when they moved from Cambodia to Ontario:

Troueng describes her memories of early refugee life in Goderich, Ontario. 0:59

The assimilation process, Troeung remembers included being baptized as Catholics by the church that sponsored her family. 

They were given non-Asian names — Luke, Catherine, Peter, Patrick and Sarah. 

Troeung refused to be called Sarah. 

In 1985, Troeung and her family became Canadian citizens. 

Y-Dang Troeung was five years old when she became a Canadian citizen. (Submitted by Y-Dang Troeung)

Tough to assimilate  

Vuthy Lay has his own memories of being a refugee in an unfamiliar world where challenges and generosity went hand-in-hand. 

Now president of the Cambodian Association of Ottawa Valley, Lay arrived in 1983 as part of Project 4,000 — a program launched by Ottawa city council to sponsor 4,000 refugees. 

Lay says he was happy to be here but for the most part, in those days, after their arrival refugees had to manage on their own.

'We came here to survive by ourselves," he said by phone. 

Today there are many more services available to help refugees settle in Canada, he said. 

"It's like you come to the heavens," said Lay, who had survived three years in a Cambodian refugee camp in Thailand.   

40 years later 

Y-Dang Troeung says she's been inspired by her family's experiences and sacrifices to help new waves of refugees to Canada. 

"I would really like to see Canada do more today for the new waves of refugees coming from places around the world that share many parallels to Cambodian history," said Troeung, an assistant professor in Asian literature and critical refugee studies at the University of B.C.

Her parents are retired in Cambridge, Ontario. 

Troeung said, her parents have a had good life in Canada but memories of the war they had to flee will never be forgotten. 

"Those kinds of wounds can never really go away," she said.     

Troeung's work to help recent refugees includes work with the Vancouver Association for Survivors of Torture (VAST) B.C.'s largest centre for refugee mental health.  

"I carry the memory of my family history with me every day because it's essentially inscribed in my name itself." 

Y-Dang Troeung with husband Chris Patterson and their son Kai regularly chat with Y-Dang's parents in Cambridge, Ontario. (Christian Amundson/CBC)

 

About the Author

Belle Puri

Reporter

Belle Puri is a veteran journalist who has won awards for her reporting in a variety of fields. Belle contributes to CBC Vancouver's Impact Team, where she investigates and reports on stories that impact people in their local community.