OAKLAND, Calif. -- Despite what he’s been through, Vietnamese Colonel Ne Lam, now 83 and residing in a senior housing unit in Oakland, looks young for his age. These days he’s recognized as a devoted Cambodian Buddhist monk, a community leader who travels back to Cambodia and Vietnam every year to do charity work. But to the survivors of the Vietnamese Dong Rek Refugee Camp, he was more than a leader. He was a life-saver.
“To me, he is the king,” described Sean Do, a 47-year-old Cambodian-Vietnamese-Chinese survivor of the Dong Rek camp—an International Red Cross-supported camp located on the Thai-Cambodian border that was home to Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees.
Do, who now works and lives in San Francisco, recently learned from other refugees that Lam had not passed away as rumored. And not only was Lam alive, Do learned, but they were living in the very same city. After 26-years, Do would finally be reunited with the man he calls his “hero”.
At the age of 17, Do arrived alone at the refugee camp after losing contact with his family amid the chaos of fleeing the war. When the Red Cross delegates were off duty, thieves would regularly raid the camp, and one night Do was hospitalized after being mugged and severely beaten. Due to his injuries, Do was immediately relocated to Nong Samet Platform, a new refugee camp where Do later landed a job as a physician’s assistant with the International Red Cross. He was attractive as an employee because of his ability to speak Cantonese, Vietnamese, Cambodian and French. Lam, who ran the refugee camp at that time, visited Do frequently and gave him the attention and support he so desperately needed during his recovery.
“I am not only grateful that he saved my life, but that he was there for the [other] refugees,” said Do.
Theft, random attacks and the raping of girls and women were common at the camps, but the presence of Lam made all the difference, recalled Do. Each night, Lam patrolled the camp perimeter to ensure the safety of the refugees. Lam said the Cambodian soldiers were all scared of him and respected him as a Buddhist monk, so they didn’t dare invade the camp when he was present. “He was a true leader,” said Do. From time to time, he allowed girls and women to find shelter in his cottage on the nights when they were worried for their safety.
From 1982 to 1985, the number of refugees at the camp grew from 500 to over 8,000 people, mainly because of the social instabilities in Cambodia and Vietnam, but also because of Lam’s reputation for maintaining peace in the refugee camp.
Born in 1927, Lam was brought up as a Cambodian Buddhist monk at a Cambodian temple in Vietnam, where he was born and raised. Lam’s parents migrated from China to work on the rice fields in Vietnam. Lam later furthered his education in France and joined the Vietnamese military after he returned, and was later appointed as Colonel.
However, during the Vietnam War, Lam, like many intellectuals, was put in a reeducation camp for six years. After he was released, he immediately took his son and fled to the Dong Rek Refugee Camp in Thailand. Recognizing Lam’s background as a Colonel and his leadership skills, people at the camp eventually turned to him to create some order within the disorganized and unsafe camp.
Lam said life in the camp was harsh. Food and clean water were in short supply, hygiene was poor and interpersonal conflicts were many—caused by differences between families, languages, ethnicities and religions. The refugees were mainly Laos, Vietnamese, and Cambodian.
Lam sought to maintain peace by preaching respect. Even though he was a Buddhist practitioner himself, he kindly welcomed worship in temples, churches and mosques throughout the camp. Religious practice in the camp allowed for the refugees to believe in a better future, said Lam.
In 1985, after spending three and a half years at the camp, Lam and his son were ordered to leave the camp after his life was threatened. Do, who knew the camp wouldn’t be as safe after the Lam’s departure, decided to also leave, and was fortunate to have the Red Cross arrange for his relocation to Denmark. Do and Lam thus parted, and lost contact with each other over the ensuing years. Do finished his college education in Denmark and immigrated to the U.S. after a stop in England and Japan. What he did not know was, Lam also immigrated to the United States after stopping briefly in the Philippines shortly after he left the camp.
Do said he was grateful to see Lam again, and not surprised to find that he hadn’t changed a bit when it comes to helping others.
Now living alone in Oakland, Lam leads a very modest life, receiving SSI and saving up every penny for children and monks in Cambodia. Since 1994, Lam has managed to visit Cambodia and Vietnam once a year to donate money and food to temples out of his own pocket, to support the education of children there.
“Life is now different; whenever I travel back to Cambodia and Vietnam to do the charity, the government is happy to see me. They respect and welcome me. They know I am a good person,” said Lam.
Lam also used the opportunity to visit his five daughters who stayed in Vietnam. Lam said he petitioned for his daughters to immigrant to the United States but all were rejected except his youngest daughter because the U.S. government suspected that they were not his real children.
“I have to wait eight years (for my youngest daughter to come home), ” said Lam, who is hoping to have his daughter come to take care of him.
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