I met Heng in 1987 in the Philippine Refugee Processing Center in Morong, Bataan. He came to PRPC from one of the first asylum camps along the Cambodian – Thai border after he was interviewed and accepted for resettlement in the US. A survivor of the Killing Fields, Heng is one of the sunniest people I have ever met, a man with a great smile and a big laugh. My family knew him for most of his six month stay in Morong. Heng was one of our martial arts instructors, a companion for meals and trips to the beach below PRPC, my driving student and one of our best friends. We have been able to stay in touch with him since he settled in California.



Heng moved first to Brawley, by the inland Salton Sea, below sea level and often in the 100s during the summer, to work in a relative’s doughnut shop. (Did you know that donuts have become a Cambodian business in California, just as pizza seems to have become Greek in southwestern New Hampshire?!) Linda and I visited him there just after he received his green card. We celebrated by crossing into Mexico with him for a few hours so he could enjoy the new privilege of leaving the US and being able to come back in!

Before long Heng moved to Corona, closer to LA, where he opened his own shop and now a second. I know no one who works harder than Heng, and through his hard work and that of his wife Houn, they now live comfortably (and still work extremely hard).   They have raised two teenage boys, both with a similar work ethic which they have developed as competitive swimmers.


Fossils at Jurupa Mountains Discovery Center in Corona


The cactus garden at Jurupa

Dinosaur among the cacti

Unexpected visitor

Lina and I have visited Heng and Houn twice in California. Once our travels in Cambodia intersected with his and we went together to Angkor Wat and stayed in his home village. He told us that he used to swim in the river in his village, perhaps a foreshadowing of his sons’ prowess in the pool. However, he has talked very little of what he and his family went through under the Khmer Rouge. He has no need to, it seems. He has created a successful and happy life for himself in the US, and he remains connected to his past and his best friends. It’s not only hard work that accounts for his success. Heng treats everybody well, he is friendly and generous as well as a good businessman, and this has returned to him.

Tio's Tacos

Giant trash sculptures at Tio’s Tacos in nearby Riverside

In the doughnut shop

Houn and Lina

Maida moved last year from Princeton, NJ, where she’d lived for 50 years, to Kula on the slopes of Mount Haleakala on Maui. Her two sons and their children and grandchildren all live in Kula. Maida decided that she would pull up deep stakes and join them, not just for an annual visit but to live. The preparation for the trip and the trip itself almost killed her, in her own words, but she is very happy to be there now and looks wonderful.

From Kula 2

The view from Kula


Haleakala Crater



Inside Haleakala Crater

But then Maida is a survivor. She and her mother Margit survived Auschwitz. She has never told me much about that time, nor have I asked. What I know of her story comes from Seed of Sarah by Judith Isaacson. I met Maida and Margit in Princeton in 1965, while I was still in high school. Maida and my mother became best friends and so they stayed until my mother’s death in 1984. I saw a lot of Maida and have continued to visit her on every trip south – and now, on this journey west.

Maida feeds the chickens

Maida feeds her chickens while John and I look on.

Mum's rug

My mother designed and made this rug for Maida.

To see her happily settled on her son John’s farm, feeding the chickens who come every morning to her call, is a joy. To know she has persevered through so many challenges and never lost her spirit or her hope is an inspiration.

Maida waves goodbye

Maida waves goodbye.

In Heng and Maida I see a dignity and grace that have been able to put horrible events behind them, surely not forgotten but also not dwelt upon, and to move forward to create lives of meaning and beauty.