Ken Duong leads a modest and happy life as a chef in the South East region of Queensland, but the Cambodian refugee’s journey to get here is nothing short of extraordinary.
At 13, he fled the brutal communist regime of Cambodian President Pol Pot, making a solo trip to a refugee camp in Thailand.
The polio had left the teenager with a severe lameness in his right leg, making the 33-day trip all the more exhausting.
Her family were scattered across the country, separated as they fled the gunfire.
“In my heart and in my thoughts, I just wanted to go somewhere I could stay away from bullets and somewhere I could be safe, with food to eat,” the 54-year-old said. .
“Some people helped me. Other times I had to fight on my own.”
On the eve of Refugee Week, as Mr Duong recalls his desperate escape as a child, the Red Cross says his story underscores the importance of community in helping to create new lives for displaced people as the conflict creates more refugees than ever.
An estimated 2 million people died from overwork, starvation, massacres and disease during the Khmer Rouge era in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979.
“At one point,” Mr. Duong said, “there was nothing to eat except larvae, so you would choose what you could get from the soil and turn it into food to survive.” he said.
Mr. Duong went to the camp but said other young men were killed before reaching the barbed wire fences.
After a few months at the camp, international aid began to arrive, including the Red Cross.
“One of them, they hit my head and asked if I wanted to go to Australia,” he said.
“I didn’t know much English but I told them, ‘All I ever wanted was to get away from the noise of bullets and have more to eat.’
“The food, the language, the community – everything was new to me.”
Shortly after arriving in Sydney, Mr Duong started school and underwent a series of leg operations that involved wearing a metal brace while walking.
After facing starvation, Mr. Duong had an acute appreciation for food and decided to take cooking training.
In 1986, he learned from the Red Cross that his father was in Thailand.
“I remember after reading the letter, with difficulty because I was not well educated and reading my old Cambodian language was quite difficult … I remember I had this letter in hand”, he said. -he declares.
“I just wanted to see my dad because I haven’t seen him since I was eight.”
He sponsored his father to come to Australia and as Mr. Duong raised his own young family, he also reunited with his brothers and mother.
Vicki Mau, head of migration support for the Red Cross, said a lot has changed since Mr Duong fled Cambodia.
“In the world, there are now more refugees on the move in search of safety, and political changes that are reducing the opportunities for refugees to form a new home and start a new life,” said Ms. Mau.
“We have seen conflicts move across continents and we know more about the impact of trauma, the importance of support and the impact of family separation.
“Around the world, the lack of options for refugees means living in uncertainty about their future.
“When you can’t build a life and look ahead, it takes a heavy toll and leaves families in limbo.
“The experience of being a refugee, or of refugee origin, does not end with arriving in a new country. It is a permanent reality.
“I have a very happy life”
Mr Duong has worked in kitchens in South East Queensland and, for the past three years, has made his home in the country town of Boonah.
This is where he runs Mr Ken’s Kitchen, serving traditional Thai dishes that loyal customers from as far as Gatton drive to enjoy.
Mr Duong has lived in Australia for 41 years and says there is not a day when he is not grateful to the communities who accepted him and “helped me have a better life”.
“I have a very happy life here in Australia,” he said.
“Although I struggle to put on my steel corset every day.”
Ms Mau said it was important not to underestimate the role the community played in the successful settlement of “our new Australians”.
“This Refugee Week is an opportunity for all of us to do better, and for all of us to recognize the strength, expertise and extraordinary contributions of refugees in Australia, and to amplify and support their voices for action” , she said.
Refugee Week runs from June 20 to 26.