On the serene fairway of the Woodbridge Golf and Country Club, local dentist Kuy Ky carefully picks out a club. It’s a big change from nearly 40 years ago, when a 5-year-old Ky and his family were woken up in the middle of the night by the sounds of gunfire and bombs in Cambodia.
The story of his survival and ultimate success is a testament to the strength of the human spirit, and an example of the American Dream in action.
A Woodbridge resident, Ky lives behind the country club with his wife Morie and four children, taking on the roles of father, dentist, Science Bowl coach and leader in community service.
Ky was a refugee from Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge regime, which lasted from 1975 to 1979.
In 1975, Pol Pot declared Cambodia a new type of communist state — one with a focus on keeping an entirely agrarian socialist society. Cambodia would be wiping the slate clean and starting over with “Year Zero.” All evidence of a Western lifestyle would be destroyed, including modern medicine, transportation and the media.
Cambodians were forced out of the country’s bustling cities and scattered into small country villages, to keep people from settling or rebelling.
Any “undesirables” would be executed. This included educated people, disabled people and sometimes parents.
Ky and his older brother were separated from their parents when Ky was 7, and they were put into reeducation camps led by teenagers. Children were taught that everything belonged to the government, that parents didn’t exist, and that their lives had no value to the government.
Everyone was put to work in the rice fields seven days a week from dawn to dusk. Ky’s duty was to build levees for irrigating the fields.
Despite the regime’s increased focus on agriculture, there was little to no food available.
A daily meal of rice porridge was provided, which was more water than rice. Sometimes the porridge even contained maggots.
“We ate everything in sight — larvae, grasshoppers, snakes, rats, anything. But I have never eaten dog,” Ky said.
Ky’s older brother Paul Ky, a physician in Fresno, said he secretly ate live fish in the fields. If anyone caught any food for himself and was found, he would be forced to share it with everyone or face punishment for stealing.
Food was scarce and disease was rampant, even for newborns who were taken from their parents and given to the care of breastfeeding women crammed in a hut.
Ky’s baby brother died of smallpox.
“We didn’t wear shoes, so one day I stepped on a branch and punctured my foot. It became septic, and I almost died,” said Paul Ky. He said many were infected with staphylococcus, and had pustules all over and around their armpits.
Over the following four years, Kuy Ky had little sense of time or dates other than the passing of the sun. He remembers seeing people shackled and starved to death.
He remembers children shooting their fathers.
“In the summer when the ponds dried out, you could see undergarments and bones sticking out,” he said.
By 1979, the Khmer Rouge was pushed out of power by the North Vietnamese.
During the years of chaos, Ky’s father had disappeared and his family believed him to be dead, but he returned three weeks after the fall of the regime to retrieve his children.
It wasn’t until much later that the family learned Ky’s father was part of a silent resistance against the government.
The family traveled on foot back to Ky’s birth town, Chom Nom.
Entering Vietnamese soldiers eventually took control of the village.
“A Vietnamese soldier could speak a little Cambodian, and he told us, ‘If you want to leave Cambodia, you need to leave now before we close the border,’” Ky said.
By this time, people claiming to know the safe ways through the jungle had appeared and offered to lead others to the Thailand border in exchange for payment.
During the regime, most people were stripped of their money and personal property, but Ky’s father had buried some gold under a coconut tree and used it as payment to help the family escape. Ky’s family baked the gold into rice pastries to smuggle it out of the village.
They joined a group of approximately 35 people, who traveled on foot for several days through the jungle without any food or water in early May 1979. The sick and elderly were carried by younger and stronger family members, but some were unable to complete the journey. Others were left behind.
The group had to be careful to stay on the path because the jungle was filled with landmines and sharpened, posioned bamboo sticks.
“In the middle of the journey, the guide said, ‘Thank you so much. Thailand is over there. I have to go get another group.’ We had no idea where north, south, east or west was,” Ky said.
With the guide gone, Ky’s family and the rest of the group of fleeing Cambodians walked for three more days. Young men climbed to the tops of trees to see above the jungle canopy.
The Thailand border was just as treacherous. Pirates were waiting by the border to steal anything of value, even kidnapping the attractive women.
Eventually, Ky and his family were taken at gunpoint to a Thai military camp. Ky’s father was beaten, and all of them were again searched for items of value. They stayed for two weeks before transferring to a refugee camp in Bangkok for three months.
Catholic Charities volunteers were in the refugee camps to sponsor people leaving the country and help them find their relatives.
It was the first time Ky had ever seen foreigners from countries like France or the United States.
Ky’s father, who had spent the majority of his life fleeing from communist regimes in China and Cambodia, decided to move the family to the United States. He told Catholic Charities that he knew Saukam Khoy, a high-ranking official in the former Cambodian government.
“Catholic Charities sent a telegram to the U.S., and he was kind enough to say that it was his nephew. That was a godsend,” Ky said.
On Sept. 7, 1979, the family received news that they would be co-sponsored to Austin, Texas.
Ky was 9 years old when he had his first photos taken. The family photo shows a recovering group of starved people wearing donated clothes.
Without any documents, the family members were each given numbers for identification.
No one knew their birthdays, and they had to decide which dates would be easily remembered. Ky’s father picked Oct. 1 for himself — the date China fell to communism.
Ky asked his father why he made the decision to leave Cambodia, and his father told him that there was no future for him there.
“We were very fortunate that we left when we did, because a couple of days later, most of the refugees were sent back to Cambodia,” said Paul Ky
Ky and his family first arrived in the country at San Francisco International Airport.
“When we stayed in a hotel, it was my first time watching UHF channel TV. The first show I ever saw was ‘The Incredible Hulk’ with Bill Bixby,” Kuy Ky said. He said that coming to America was a huge culture shock — he had never seen cars or big bustling cities.
After arriving in Texas, the family — who knew no English — was picked up by Saukam Khoy and his wife, as well as their co-sponsor Norma Jean Pickett, the wife of a Southern Baptist pastor. Ky’s 10-person family crammed themselves in a two-bedroom space provided for them.
While living in Texas, Ky started school in the fifth grade. He was often bullied by neighborhood children, being one of the few Cambodian refugees in the area.
Over time, his family did odd jobs and saved up money to take everyone on a Greyhound bus to Stockton, to live with Ky’s uncle.
Ky grew up and went to school in Stockton.
He and his family all worked hard to earn money to sustain themselves. Ky often worked in the fields picking tomatoes, cucumbers and onions, or as a paperboy. He caught up in his education by his sophomore year at Stagg High School.
Through some of the sewing work the family did on the side to support themselves, Ky’s father made a connection with a Chinese dentist, who allowed Ky to apprentice in his practice for money.
Ky’s father then gave him two options for his future: Work in the family’s donut shop, Original New York Handcut Donuts, which his uncle opened in Stockton in 1984, or become a dentist.
Ky chose dentistry, and is today a successful dentist with his own practice. His siblings also followed his lead, studying to enter medical and dental fields.
He now lives comfortably in the country club neighborhood, enjoying the challenges of his dentistry practice and the time he has to spend with family and giving back to the community he grew up in.
Ky met his wife Morie in Stockton at an event at her family’s Angkor restaurant. After dancing with her, Ky said he was hooked. The couple now has two sons and two daughters.
Paul Ky says the experience has taught them all resiliency and to be appreciative of the support they have from family.
“We are forever grateful for what America has done for us. We do our best in everything we do and to give back to the community,” he said.
Paul Ky said that he and his siblings are planning on raising money for mobile clinics both here and in Cambodia. Kuy Ky already volunteers his time with mobile dentist clinics in Stockton.
Above all, Kuy Ky’s outlook on life after surviving the turmoil in Cambodia is largely positive.
“Whenever anybody asks me how I am, I say ‘Fantastic, thank you. Never had a bad day in my life,’” Ky said.