DeKALB – It took courage for a DeKalb family to flee war-torn Cambodia in the late 1970s.
It took Bethlehem Lutheran Church in DeKalb to help the family have a new beginning.
Hem Lach and members of his family were at the church, 1915 N. First St., on Sunday to share their story of exodus from Cambodia. While the Communist regime – Khmer Rouge, which was responsible for mass genocide – was fighting the Vietnamese Army, Lach and his family fled in the middle of the night.
“We went through everything with the Khmer Rouge,” Lach said. “When Vietnam invaded, we knew we had to leave and not risk being sent to a labor camp or somewhere else.”
“If you were caught, you were killed,” Lach’s oldest daughter, Chandy Tracy, said Sunday. “[The Khmer Rouge] were the last encounter before escape. They held their fire because they were outnumbered by the (Vietnamese) freedom fighters, which is why they decided ‘OK, we aren’t going to win this.’ From then on, when we crossed the border [into Thailand], we were in safe territory, and they left us alone.”
In 1979, the family arrived in a refugee camp in northwest Thailand and stayed until 1981. The conditions were “night and day” compared with Cambodia, Lach said.
“Thailand was our second country,” Lach said.
In the early 1980s, World Lutheran Relief urged churches to sponsor refugee families. Former Bethlehem Lutheran member Dorothy Rossing answered the call, longtime church member Anna Fischer said.
With help from Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, the Laches lived with Rossing a couple of months in 1981 before they settled into an apartment. Lach said more of his family followed that fall.
Church member and nurse Mona Theisen attended to the family’s health needs.
A quick learner, Lach already had become conversational in English in camps. Rossing and fellow member Virginia Rasmussen helped the rest of the family learn English. So did TV. Tracy remembers learning English by watching sitcoms such as “ALF” and “Three’s Company.”
Tracy fondly recalled being “surrounded by loving people and going to people’s houses for dinner” and that her “favorite holidays were Christmas and Halloween.” Fischer, Tracy’s godmother, helped make her Halloween costumes.
Tom Inboden, owner of Inboden’s Meat Market in DeKalb, hired Lach to clean the shop and later hired his younger brother, Chemroeun.
Lach also cleaned at JC Penney for four years in addition to working with catalog merchandise orders. Since 1985, he has worked for Sonoco Alloyd in DeKalb. Tracy is a preschool teacher.
The Laches became naturalized American citizens in 1998.
“If it weren’t for Bethlehem Lutheran Church, [we] wouldn’t be here,” Lach said.
Tracy poignantly told of what got her family out of Cambodia and into a new life:
“Having faith and being Christian, the conditions that our people were living in and how they were being treated, and my father, who had been a soldier with the soldier mentality to protect our family,” she said.
“He is a hero.”
Fischer said the Laches’ story “needed to be told,” considering the plight of Syrian refugees today.
“I am so happy to have helped along with others to fulfill an American Dream,” she said. “We all can make a difference.”