Editor’s Note: Paul Ratha Yem is a Massachusetts real estate broker and former Cambodian refugee who sees parallels between his story and the women and children escaping war-torn Ukraine. The National Association of Realtors recommends donating to the International Committee of the Red Cross, UNICEF and Doctors Without Borders to help Ukrainian refugees.
As I was watching the Russian tanks and convoy rolling into Ukraine, it’s eerily reminiscent of what happened in Cambodia 47 years ago as the Khmer Rouge soldiers in black pajamas, heavily armed, marched into the capital, Phnom Penh. That’s just the beginning of the Killing Fields that claimed the innocent lives of about 2 million people, including children, men and women, young and old.
The world stood by and did nothing to intervene or to help.
On Feb. 24, we watched Russian tanks and armored vehicles roll into Ukraine after weeks of warning by the United States of the imminent invasion by Russia. The image of women and children fleeing Ukraine into neighboring countries with only what they could gather and carry are the same images of what happened on that fateful day on April 17, 1975, in Cambodia.
The world watches helplessly, unable to intervene militarily for fear of escalating the war with Russia that may lead to a nuclear World War III.
Unlike with Cambodia, the U.S. and NATO allies impose tough economic and other sanctions to punish Russia for its aggression, in addition to providing aid and weapons to help the Ukraine army and militia.
I was standing in my bedroom crying, agonizing seeing the Ukrainian women and children flee their country or take shelter in basements or bomb shelters. Those images brought back the pain of losing my family and relatives, and from being uprooted from the home, neighborhood and country I was born in.
I choked up seeing the kindness of the Poles providing hot meals, shelters, warm clothes, diapers and toys to Ukraine refugees at the border. Cambodian refugees who fled to neighboring Thailand were robbed, raped and a large number were pushed back into Cambodia to be killed by the Khmer Rouge or by landmines along the Khmer/Thai border.
The human toll of the war in Ukraine will be high. Maybe it’s not as high as in Cambodia, but nonetheless, it will be devastating. There will be Ukrainian boys and girls encouraged to leave their homeland to find a better life in other countries such as the U.S., just as I once was. I hope that we, as a country of immigrants, will accept them with open hearts just as I was accepted.
Let us remember where we all came from and the many blessings we received. Now it is time for us to open our hearts and help the Ukrainian people through our generous donations to reputable organizations.