On Tuesday January 28 there was not a regular club meeting, as we had a special speaker that day for which the public was invited. A notice in the newspaper prompted more than 170 people to sign up! (note photos of the event in our album section)  Hotel Real de Chapala gave us a large room for this event and provided a set lunch for 70 Pesos. The speaker was Lori Vinh Sok Brown, a Cambodia genocide survivor, sharing her story of how, as a young mother of two, she had escaped the killing fields in the late 1970s. For those of you who could not make it to the event; Julianna Rose interviewed

Lori Brown.




Little did Lori Vinh Sok Brown know as a young Cambodian girl growing up in the farming village of Or Prasath that only a few years later she would be embarking on a dangerous and harrowing journey. A journey that would ultimately land her in another country, thousands of miles away from her beloved homeland. Although her mother had passed away when Vinh Sok was four, she was taken care of by the village, which consisted of 50 families, all their members related. Life was relatively peaceful except for her father beating her every day and not allowing her to go to school. Only boys went to school. But she was a smart girl, and determined to learn, so she went secretly after doing her work at home. She cut her hair short, dressed like a boy, and sneaked into the classroom, continuing this until the age of 14. She then helped run her family's 50‑acre farm. By then her entrepreneurial spirit had emerged: she sold farm products, and she was good at it. She married, though not for love - an arranged marriage - and had her first child when she was 21.


Then the day came, in April 1975, that stands as one of the worst days in the history of Cambodia. The day the Khmer Rouge soldiers stormed Phnom Penh and overthrew the corrupt regime of General Lon Nol. Literally overnight, the entire population of Cambodia was thrown into the streets and told to move to the countryside, under the ruse that America was going to bomb the cities. Once the population was in the countryside, the Khmer Rouge tortured and starved roughly 2 million people. Those that did not die from starvation were worked to death. Millions of people simply disappeared never to be heard of again. The genocide, which followed the communist takeover in Southeast Asia after the Vietnam War, killed first the country's leaders - politicians, academics, doctors, teachers - in Pot's attempt to establish an agrarian utopia.


Lori's baby was only two months old when she was forced to abandon her beloved home. It was to be destroyed, along with the entire village, and she, with many others from her village, was sent to a concentration camp to work in the rice fields. Fourteen-hour days, with an additional two hours walking from the camp to the fields and two hours back. Husbands were sent to a separate camp, far away. Once a month, families were allowed to get together. There was no food; the government took all the rice. People were fed banana root, and papaya root, the latter being dreadful and extremely bad, causing thousands of people to die each day. Many also died from being forced to eat soup that soldiers had poisoned. Lori, determined to survive, ate scorpions, large spiders, and snakes. It was not long before she realized that adults and children who admitted they could read or write, or sing, were called to "meetings", never to return.   Lori pretended that she had no education.


During that time, she became pregnant with her second child. When she was not forced to work in the killing fields in inhuman conditions under the hot blistering sun with little food and water, she had to nurse other women's children, a life-draining task. Children under five were sent to a "grandma", who would have to take care of 20 or so infants. All children of five and above would be brainwashed by the soldiers to spy on their families. Anybody who made negative comments would be summoned to come to a "meeting".  People who protested would get rags soaked in gasoline pushed down their throats and set alight.


Living in constant fear, Lori wondered when the day would come that she would be told to come to a "meeting". And in January 1979, that day came. Her immense yearning for freedom gave her the strength to grab her children and run. Her little girl was four and her little boy only 20 days old when she made her daring escape. The Khmer bullets miraculously missed her, and though her feet were bleeding, she kept running, thinking only of saving her children. After four months of wandering, during which time she made it back to her village to look for her family, left once more and found her uncle, who then helped carry her baby, Lori returned to her village again. The Khmer Rouge had lost the war, but had destroyed everything. Some people decided to stay, but Lori did not want to, thinking there would be no education and no future for her children. She stayed for only for six weeks to collect enough food for herself and her family, and then left with her husband and children, her father and stepmother and a group of almost 200 other people from her village, to seek refuge in Thailand. Paying guards to help them and to remove landmines, they walked for 15 days and nights through the jungle, full of dead bodies even on the only trail. Stepping over the stinking bodies was the only way. When they washed with water from a pond, they discovered that even the water contained dead bodies. All they had to eat was dry rice, which they just sucked on to make it last. By then, Lori did not only have her own children in tow, but also two little boys who had lost their families and begged to walk with her. When the guards decided to split up the group and make everyone hand over their money and jewelry to them for "safekeeping", Lori hid hers in her clothes. During the journey people got sick, died, or became separated from Lori's original group of 50. Exhausted, and not having eaten any food for days, they accidently stumbled upon the Thai border. To their horror, the Thai soldiers did not want to accept them and said they would send them back. They abused the group and raped the women. Lori managed to save a 14‑year‑old girl from the soldiers. The group, then down to 40, was told that a truck would come to send them back. They sobbed, begged, and finally just waited in defeat. Great was their relief when, miraculously, a United Nations truck pulled up and the soldiers were given orders not to send the people back, but to give them food and water.


A 24‑hour bus ride later, the group arrived at a Thai refugee camp, where Lori and her husband and children lived from 1979 to 1981. As her father was Thai and she could speak Thai, as well as being smart, Lori had the privilege of working for the camp Commandant General. She had learned French in school, but France said no to her immigration application, and so did America at first. But Thailand accepted her, so she was moved to a Thai camp. Food was better; they gave her two cans of rice and two fish a day. Lori however was not satisfied to just sit there, waiting like most of the others, and started a weaving business in the camp. She remained there until her sister, who had escaped earlier and immigrated to Hawaii, sent a letter sponsoring Lori. America then accepted her.


Once in Hawaii, Lori did not want to hold out her hand to receive benefits. Though she did not speak a word of English, she started sewing and made clothes, including Hawaiian shirts that she sold at swap meets determined to provide for her children and give them a good education. But her hardship did not end there. She had a third child, a boy, who appeared to be sick. Lori thinks because of medication that had been administered to her in the Thai camp while unaware she was pregnant. The boy developed seizures and Lori had to helplessly watch him lying in coma until he died at the age of 22. During those years, she and her husband became estranged and later divorced.


One day in 1990, when Lori was taking a day off and relaxing on the beach, she was spotted by her present husband, Jerry Brown, an American who had moved to Hawaii from California. Jerry had owned several companies and Lori's entrepreneurial spirit struck him. Thanks to his help and encouragement, Lori started a cleaning business, took an accounting course at night school, and became an American citizen. She built her one-woman cleaning business into a successful enterprise of over 100 clients, making around US$150,000 a year. She was loved and respected by everyone, clients and employees alike. Never forgetting her roots, she hired any Cambodians that entered the country.  Happily married for 23 years, Lori and Jerry retired in 2006. They travelled the world, the fulfillment of a lifelong dream of Lori as a little girl. To date they have visited 33 countries together. She has been back to Cambodia several times, for the first time with her children in 1997, 18 years after she escaped the killing fields with them. Tay, her daughter, and Tam, her son, are exceedingly proud of their mother. Both graduated from college and are successful in their careers.









Lori and Jerry have spent several winters in Ajijic. While here, Lori sews beautiful dresses for local Mexican children and donates them to Needle Pushers.


Lori's courageous journey to freedom ultimately ended thousands of miles from her homeland. Today, even though Cambodia has made immense progress, the scars of the war remain visible. The country is marked with 30,000 mass graves, and 40 percent is still covered by land mines. About 85 percent of the population lives off farming, in part because the Khmer Rouge executed the country’s academics. Despite its scars and the past suffering of its population, Cambodia is a beautiful country, with lush green vegetation and great historic sites. And Cambodia's people are friendly and helpful to visitors.


Lori is very thankful each day for the freedom she and her two children enjoy. Her message: "Whatever situation you are in, don't lose hope. What is past is past, don't dwell on it. Focus on the present and look to the future".