A life reborn, a story now told
A life reborn, a story now told
Escaping Cambodia, Aun Em built a new life at Harvard Medical School
Aun Em, who is Harvard Medical School’s IT help desk coordinator, has lived by the code of always looking forward. This has guided both her life and her career at Harvard; Em and her family fled the Khmer Rouge Regime in Cambodia in 1975 and then faced challenges growing up in America.
When Aun Em was growing up in Cambodia, she was told that if you look down, you can only see a few feet, but if you look up, the view is infinite.
Em, who is Harvard Medical School’s (HMS) IT help desk coordinator, has lived by the code of always looking forward. This has guided both her life and her career at Harvard. “You only look into the past to create a solution for the future,” she said.
Few of her Harvard colleagues were aware of her own past. They know her as an engaging, efficient technology specialist, the active co-chair of the local Joint Committee on the Status of Women (JCSW), a single mother of a 17-year-old daughter, and a passionate advocate of helping other women.
But in December she was asked to share her personal story with Harvard staff and faculty, and her illustrated lecture about survival under the ruthless Khmer Rouge regime moved listeners to tears.
She was born in August 1970 (her parents could not later recall the exact date) in Batdambang province in Cambodia, the youngest of 17 children; only seven survived into adulthood. Her parents were farmers. Theirs was a subsistence existence, worsened when her father was hit by a car and severely injured. In 1975, the Khmer Rouge, a fanatical Communist faction, took over Cambodia and set out to radically remake the country under leader Pol Pot’s warped vision of an agrarian society. More than 25 percent of the population would die under his rule.
Rural families were rounded up and questioned. The Khmer Rouge weeded out and executed anyone with an education. Em’s older brothers signed papers with their left hands to disguise the fact that they had gone to school.
The family was torn apart as the older children were assigned to labor groups; the older the child, the harder the labor. All were starved and punished for not producing. Em was able to stay with her mother, who convinced the Khmer Rouge leaders to let her set up a silkworm-breeding program and bring back some of her children.
After invading Vietnamese soldiers ejected Pol Pot in 1978, surviving family members returned to their village, only to find it in ruins. They made the desperate decision to leave Cambodia, urged on by messages from one brother who had found his way to Thailand. They narrowly escaped execution by the remaining Khmer Rouge, and they traveled by night through jungles and over mountains, avoiding land mines, toward the border.
“One night when we were so exhausted, we needed to rest, we needed fluid,” Em said. “We found a big puddle, and we all pretty much lay there. The next morning, when we woke up, we ended up seeing dead bodies in that big puddle. We didn’t want to, but we had to drink water from that pool of dead bodies. When you’re in starvation mode, you do anything to survive.”
“We were lucky to make it to the Thai border,” Em said.
From a Thai refugee camp, the family was brought in 1982 to New York state under church sponsorships. “It was challenging for us, but we knew we were not in fear of being taken away,” Em said. “We were happy to be in America. We needed to learn how to adapt.”
“It was challenging for us, but we knew we were not in fear of being taken away,” Em said (little girl, front). “We were happy to be in America. We needed to learn how to adapt.”
After graduating from high school, however, Em was forced to accept an arranged marriage and moved to the Boston area. The marriage was not a good one, and 10 months after her daughter was born, the couple split up. In defiance of Cambodian tradition, Em wanted to continue her education, and she did, first getting an accounting degree. Later, while working two jobs, she was awarded a Microsoft System Engineer Certification from Clark University. In 2002, she was hired by HMS to manage the IT help desk group, a position that must constantly reinvent itself as technology progresses.
Her position matches her “core essence.” That is, “I really want to be able to learn and teach at the same time, because having an education was suppressed back at home. I want to see women advance. I want to be a good role model for my daughter, to really understand how important it is to have this freedom and to use it wisely.”
Em keeps looking up into the infinite sky: She has supported programs that educate girls in Cambodia, and she speaks passionately about her work with JCSW.
“My personal journey to America was about survival and perseverance, and my journey at Harvard is to enhance the sense of community, culture, and providing opportunities through JCSW for other women to advance in their careers,” she said.
Photo by Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer
About Harvard Medical School (HMS)
Driving Change. Building Momentum. Making History.
“Since 1872, Harvard Medical School has been the incubator of bold ideas—a place where extraordinary people advance education, science and health care with unrelenting passion.
Whether training tomorrow’s doctors and scientists, decoding the fundamental nature of life, advancing patient care or improving health delivery systems around the world, we are never at rest. Allied with some of the world’s best hospitals, research institutes and a University synonymous with excellence, the School’s mission remains as ambitious as it is honorable: to alleviate human suffering caused by disease.”
About Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH)
Harvard School of Public Health is dedicated to advancing the public’s health through learning, discovery and communication. More than 400 faculty members are engaged in teaching and training the 1,000-plus student body in a broad spectrum of disciplines crucial to the health and well being of individuals and populations around the world. Programs and projects range from the molecular biology of AIDS vaccines to the epidemiology of cancer; from risk analysis to violence prevention; from maternal and children’s health to quality of care measurement; from health care management to international health and human rights.
About Harvard University.
Established in 1636, Harvard is the oldest institution of higher education in the United States. The University, which is based in Cambridge and Boston, Massachusetts, has an enrollment of over 20,000 degree candidates, including undergraduate, graduate, and professional students. Harvard has more than 360,000 alumni around the world.
Harvard University is devoted to excellence in teaching, learning, and research, and to developing leaders in many disciplines who make a difference globally. Harvard faculty are engaged with teaching and research to push the boundaries of human knowledge. For students who are excited to investigate the biggest issues of the 21st century, Harvard offers an unparalleled student experience and a generous financial aid program, with over $160 million awarded to more than 60% of our undergraduate students. The University has twelve degree-granting Schools in addition to the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, offering a truly global education.
‘Universities nurture the hopes of the world: in solving challenges that cross borders; in unlocking and harnessing new knowledge; in building cultural and political understanding; and in modeling environments that promote dialogue and debate… The ideal and breadth of liberal education that embraces the humanities and arts as well as the social and natural sciences is at the core of Harvard’s philosophy. ’/ Drew Gilpin Faust
* The above story is adapted from materials provided by Harvard University