Christopher Reeve once said "A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles." Loung Ung is my hero because of her courage and heart. She is now a spokesperson of CLFW, Campaign for a Landmine-Free World, traveling around the world, telling people about landmines and her life in Cambodia. Loung states "As I tell people about genocide, I get the opportunity to redeem myself. I've had the chance to do something that's worth my being alive." The pain, horror, and experience she went through is horrifying yet inspiring. But to have the ability to repeat her terrifying life story and spread the message about landmines and make a difference in the world is just pure beauty. Loung Ung is my hero, and this is why.
Born in 1970, Loung Ung lived in Phnom Penh, the capital city Cambodia, until the age of five. Her father was a high-ranking government official, resulting a wealthy family. Loung, one of seven children, lived a happy life in Phnom Penh. She enjoyed playing hopscotch, going to the market with her mother and playing dress-up with her older sister's clothes.
Then on April 17th, 1975, Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge army gained control of Cambodia and evacuated Phnom Penh. Loung and her family trekked from village to village, fighting starvation, disease and back-breaking labor. Loung's oldest brothers, Meng and Khouy, and oldest sister, Keav, were sent away to work in different camps. A few months later, Keav died of food poisoning. Two Khmer Rouges demanded her father; he was never heard from again. Eventually, the rest of her family dispersed, working in labor camps in hope to survive. A couple of months later, Loung visited her mother and baby sister, Geak, in the nearby village, only to discover they, like her father, were taken by Khmer Rouge soldiers, and were never seen again.
In January 1979, the Vietnamese army gained control of Cambodia. Mortar explosions caused many villages to flee, and Loung was reunited with her brother, Kim, and sister, Chou. Many days later, they arrived at Pursat City, a refugee camp controlled by friendly Vietnamese soldiers. All three were taken in by families and had simple duties to carry out every day. Sometime later, the camp was attacked by the Khmer Rouge, forcing everyone to flee to a nearby empty warehouse. They stayed there overnight, but bombs attacked yet again in the morning. Loung and her siblings scattered back to Pursat City with their foster family. In April, they were rejoined with Meng and Khouy, and they headed to Bat Deng to live with their uncle. During this time, Meng married Eang, a twenty year old Chinese woman. Meng and Eang went to Vietnam to visit Eang's parents, and they planned to travel to Thailand via Vietnam. Meng returned to Bat Deng and took Loung with him to Vietnam, for he only had enough money for one more body. Loung and Meng were smuggled into Vietnam and lived with Eang and her family. A few months later, Loung, Meng and Eang moved to a houseboat, leaving for Thailand two months later. After three days on the Gulf of Thailand, they arrived at the Lam Sing refugee camp. They lived there for four months until they discovered that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Holy Family Church in Vermont would be their sponsor. In June 1980, Loung, Meng and Eang boarded a plane and headed for their new home in the United States. They lived in a small one-bedroom apartment. Church members helped the Ungs adjust to their new life and contributed tutoring for the English language. At the age of ten, Loung started school as a third grader. She struggled in school because of the language barrier, and she continued to be tutored. Loung entered the ADL Intermediate School in 1983 and continued learning more English. In 1985, she entered Essex Junction High School. With the help of their sponsors, the Ungs moved into a two-story house in a nearby neighborhood in 1986. During Loung's years in the United States, she had often with loneliness and depression. After she attempted suicide, she began to write in a journal about her life in Cambodia. Loung continued writing in this journal for many years. Loung graduated from high school in 1989 and continued her education by attending Saint Michael's College with a full four-year scholarship. During this time, she decided to become an activist and met her future husband.
In 1992, she was reunited with her brother, Kim, who had left Cambodia for Thailand and was brought to France with the help of their aunt. Loung graduated with an undergraduate degree in 1993 and worked as a community educator at a shelter for abused women.
In 1995, she visited Cambodia for the first time in fifteen years and had finally reconnected with her family. In her autobiography, First They Killed My Father, Loung says,
"As I boarded the plane in Los Angeles, I fantasized about how it would feel to return to where I belong. I envisioned myself getting off the plane and walking into the open arms of my family. I daydreamed about the warmth of the many arms of my aunts, cousins, and Chou around me, encircling me, forming a protective cocoon, keeping me safe. Finally, the plane's tires screeched against the tarmac of the short runway, and I braced myself for the first meeting with my family in a long time. I spotted my family right away. They were all there. Twenty or thirty of them stood elbow to elbow and pushed at each other to catch their first glimpse of me in many years, with Chou and Khouy in the front. Standing by myself, I stared at Chou. Once her glance reached my face and our eyes locked, I saw that they are the same kind: kind, gentle, and open. Instantly, she covered her mouth and burst into tears and ran over to me. She took my hand, her tears cool in my palm. Our fingers clasped around each other naturally as if the chain was never broken..."
"After returning to America, Loung moved to Washington, D.C. In 1996, she joined the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, VVAF, an international humanitarian organization that provides prostheses, physical rehabilitation centers, and mobility devices free of charge in many countries, including numerous provinces in Cambodia. Loung traveled to Cambodia as the VVAF's spokesperson for the "International Campaign to Ban Ladmines" for the twenty-fifth time in 2005. This campaign won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997."(wikipedia) Bobby Muller, chairman of the foundation, said that "...what comes out when Loung lectures is just staggering. It rocks people. she's the best thing this organization has ever had to advance our agenda."
In 1998, Loung, Meng and Kim visited Bat Deng for a family reunion with Khouy, Chou and many other relatives. They prepared a ceremony in memory of their parents, Sem and Ay, and their sisters, Keav and Geak.
Loung's first memoir, First They Killed My Father, was published in 2000. Her second, Lucky Child: A Daughter of Cambodia Reunites with the Sister She Left Behind, was published in 2005. In 2002, she married Mark Priemer, her college sweetheart. Together they bought two and a half acres of land in Cambodia nearby Chou's home.
Loung currently resides in suburban Cleveland, Ohio with her husband. She keeps a statue of Buddha and a picture of a palm tree and rice field in her home office to remind her of native home.
Loung Ung is more than a writer, a child who survived war, a human-rights activist, more than a human being. She is a hero, to me, to everyone that knows of her, and now, hopefully, to you. Her story, actions and bravery has changed how I looked at life and inspired me to make a difference in the world, big or small. Most of all, she taught me to never to give up, no matter how inevitable it may be. Loung kept hope strong, and she will forever be a hero that will continue to inspire us to be the best we can be. Anyone in this world can be a hero. It's up to you to see who wears that long, fluttering cape.