From Phnom Penh, Cambodia to Catholic Charities

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

At Catholic Charities, we help people that may otherwise be lost, including welcoming newcomers to our country. For some of our employees, this part of our mission is deeply personal and rewarding. Meet Engly Peou, an employee of Catholic Charities North in Lynn, Mass since 1988. She currently supports our Family Support program and English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program. Engly took time to sit with to share how her refugee story has been a key driver to her successful career of nearly 30 years at Catholic Charities.   

Q. Why did you leave Phnom Penh, Cambodia?

In January 1979, war broke out in my country and hundreds of thousands of people got tortured and killed while many others fled for their lives. After two attempts, my husband and I successfully escaped Cambodia and in November 1979 arrived to a United Nations camp in Thailand.

Q. What was it like living in the refugee camp in Thailand? How long were you there?

Our escape from Cambodia is something that is hard to talk about, even today. All we knew is that this camp in Thailand welcomed us. It was safe and we had a little space to call our own. At the camp, we completed paperwork to live in the United States. Because we had family members already living in the U.S. and other factors, we obtained the proper visas to live with my husband’s cousin in Grand Fort, North Dakota. We left the U.N. camp after two years with our one year old son Nara, who was born in 1980 at the camp; I was 25 years old.

Q. Tell us about your journey to the U.S.

From 1981 – 1984, we lived in North Dakota with family. My husband worked at night in a bakery. He also pursued a certificate in the nursing field as he had nursing experience from the camp in Thailand. While he worked, I studied English and gave birth to our second child, a girl named Nary.  

During this period, my family members who also were at the camp in Thailand were being sponsored by other relatives living in the United States. My mother arrived in Boston in mid-July 1981 while a sister moved to California. The separation from my family was hard as it’s contrary to Cambodia’s culture; in 1985, we decided to move to Boston to be closer to my mother.

Q. What brought you to Catholic Charities North?

I arrived at Catholic Charities after working for three years in Boston at a smaller social service agency serving Southeast Asian children and adolescents. At Catholic Charities North, my first job was working in our Young Parent program. In 1988 Catholic Charities and the City of Lynn were doing a lot of Cambodian outreach to support the new community.

In my role, I served as a bridge for Southeast Asians, helping them understand and navigate the western way of parenting—which was very different from eastern culture—and helping my western colleagues understand the Southeast Asian community. I also supported our English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program. Today, there aren’t as many Southeast Asians in Lynn, but a new wave of immigrants has taken their place. We are now welcoming people from as far as Russia, Iraq, Africa, Latin America and Haiti.   

 Q. What is your proudest moment at Catholic Charities?

My proudest moment is helping my community feel more comfortable in a country that is very different from their homeland. As a refugee, my first and only thought was survival. I understand that instinct and the challenges that lie ahead after one settles in the U.S. I also am proud because Catholic Charities has so many helpful programs, including Refugee and Immigration Service to help people—no matter their homeland.   

Q. Have you returned to Phnom Penh, Cambodia since you fled in 1979?

Yes. In 1995, my husband and I visited; and in 2008, we took our children, including our third child Rany, who was born in 1991. The trips for my husband and I were full circle experiences. For our kids, it was a chance to see where we came from and to more fully appreciate our family’s history. Our children are now adults, college educated with jobs and homes. We also are expecting our third grandchild in late spring. We are grateful every day and happy for the opportunities we have to give back.