Thank you for ‘Christmas Story’

by Gretta Bradley

I am not accustomed to thanking someone I don’t know. He doesn’t even know me.  But I want to thank Jim Mountain for his “Christmas Story” in the Millstone. It jogged a memory of a time when I was humbled by the story of two of my students.

There is no better way to engage students than to start with their stories. We had been studying Canadian immigration and with the exception of the Indigenous peoples, everyone has an immigration story. For the stories that had been lost, a reasonable facsimile based on research would do. For the most recent immigrants to Canada, the stories were intensely and deeply felt.

I’m sorry. I can’t remember Sopheap’s brother’s name, but I remember he had been an exceptionally difficult student. Cambodia hadn’t had an education system for quite some time and for the students who are not literate in their own language it is a struggle to learn another. To say the least, Sopheap’s brother’s educational experience in Canada would be one of frustration, which manifested itself in behavior that made it difficult for him to learn. You can read between the lines. Sopheap also had her challenges, but she was able to articulate her feelings in more or less acceptable ways. She did like to talk.

I wasn’t expecting it. Sopheap, normally, had no trouble standing in front of her classmates. She was a bit cheeky and a comedienne. This day she rocked from one foot to the other nervously. She had taken the assignment seriously. Being accustomed to Sopheap’s boisterous nature, the class had been hard to settle, but when she began to tell her story in a low almost subdued voice, students became disoriented as the events of Sopheap and her brother’s story unfolded.

Hers was not a report of the wider political upheaval and genocide of the Cambodian people. She would recount her family’s story- her father’s, her mother’s, her older sister’s and brother’s. Neither the Khmer Rouge nor the brutal dictator, Pol Pot was ever mentioned. She began with her father being forcefully conscripted on one of the army’s marches through their village. He would never be seen again, leaving her mother to fend for the family. Her older sister was returning from the fields when a landmine exploded, killing her instantly. Her mother fell into a deep depression and then a catatonic state, leaving Sopheap’s brother to care for the family.

Cambodian refugees in 1979

Then the village received news that the army was again moving through. Although a child himself, Sopheap’s brother would surely be pressed into the Pol Pot’s ideological peasant’s army and the family would be left helpless. Sopheap’s brother picked up their mother, took Sopheap by the hand, and walked away from the village. Sopheap did not recount how they ended up in a U.N. refugee camp, but it was from there that the family was identified and brought to Canada.

I was left speechless. The room was silent. The Somalian, Syrian, and half dozen or so other child refugees of regimes who were unable or unwilling to protect their own people understood what Sopheap had just done. The others looked as if they were trying to fit the picture she had just painted for them into their own experience. It left them looking confused.  The killing fields of Cambodia were very far away.

As I looked over the faces of the adolescents sitting in front of me, it occurred to me how many students in my class did not have a father, victims of egotistical, sociopathic dictators drunk with power and plans of purity and domination at the cost of thousands, hundreds of thousands of families. Having taught history for a long time, I know that the details may change, but human history has been on a terrible loop. Our own indigenous peoples have been the recipients of such plans.  So many families trying to cope with unfathomable losses, alienated from their lands, in a foreign culture, in a foreign language. I am in awe of their tremendous resilience.

At a time of year when we count our blessings, I am grateful for Sopheap and her brother’s story. They helped me to understand, as much as it is possible for someone who has never suffered such profound loss or dislocation to understand. It is going to take many generations to recover.