Monday, December 27, 2010

Cambodian American Returns Home

December 26, 2010
By Jason Beaubien
National Public Radio (USA)

People in Cambodia recently welcomed the return of a noted son. Thirty-seven years ago, Navy Capt. Michael Misiewicz escaped the genocide of the Khmer Rouge regime when he was adopted by a U.S. Embassy employee. This month, he returned, as the captain of a U.S. Navy guided missile destroyer.


A Khmer boy named Vanek Kem(ph) was six years old when a U.S. embassy worker took him out of his war-torn country in 1973. Earlier this month, he returned to Cambodia with a new name, at the helm of a U.S. Navy warship.

As NPRs Anthony Kuhn reports, the journey was a mix of official and family duties, pride, and long-held pain.

ANTHONY KUHN: Commander Michael Misiewicz, in his white officers uniform, descends a ladder to welcome his aunts and uncle and other relatives as they board his ship. Its the U.S.S. Muston(ph), a guided missile destroyer that sailed here from its base in Japan. Tearful embraces follow. Misiewicz later speaks to visitors on the ships focsal(ph).

Commander MICHAEL MISIEWICZ (U.S. Navy): A lot of emotions overwhelmed me today, and thinking about what I had left behind many years ago and then coming back, certainly everything has changed. But, you know, the happiness of all this is - there is positive future for the United States and for Cambodia as partners.

KUHN: When Misiewicz left Cambodia in 1973, he was known by his Khmer name, Vanek Kem, and his homeland was wracked by civil war. His aunt cooked and cleaned for Marna Misiewicz(ph), an administrative assistant in the U.S. embassy. The aunt, Samridge Maul(ph), remembers giving her nephew to Misiewicz to adopt.

Ms. SAMRIDGE MAUL: (through translator) I decided to put my nephew up for adoption because I really liked the person I worked with. I planned to send him first and follow later, but unfortunately, war broke out and I couldn't go with my nephew.

Mr. MARNA MISIEWICZ: His family approached me about it and I, at first, declined.

KUHN: Marna Misiewicz remembers making a tough decision about the adoption.

Ms. MISIEWICZ: I just wasn't comfortable being a single parent. And another part was taking a son away from his family. I just wasn't comfortable with that. Then they asked me again. And after some serious soul-searching I consented.

KUHN: Michael Misiewicz went to school in the small Illinois town of Lanark before enlisting in the Navy. Unbeknownst to him, his mom and siblings and made it out of Cambodia and moved to Texas. The family was reunited in 1989. Younger brother, Riffy Kim(ph), says Michael's path in life was in some ways more difficult than his.

Mr. RIFFY KIM: I think Mike takes it a little harder than I because he split it from his family. And for me, growing up with brother and sister are different. And Mike, now he knew that he have a family. We never talk about the history. We try to leave it out.

KUHN: Michael's father did not make it out. He was executed by the Khmer Rouge in 1976. Sitting in his captain's cabin, Misiewicz says he hopes this visit will help him come to grips with his father's death.

What would you tell him if you could see him now?

Mr. MISIEWICZ: I think it's just a very simple thank you for having the vision to do what you did and thank you for sacrificing so that some of the other family members could survive. He had an opportunity to survive, himself, but he chose to essentially be executed so that the rest of the family could live.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) I got my ticket in my hand. I gotta get to New Orleans...

KUHN: The Navy's 7th Fleet Band plays for kids at a school in Sianukville(ph) as USS Muston sailors meet with their counterparts in the Cambodian Navy. To some in the U.S., Misiewicz represents the dividends of the Navy's efforts to increase ethnic diversity. But Misiewicz says he's aware of the U.S.'s complex history of involvement in his native land.

A covert U.S. bombing campaign in the 1970s killed hundreds of thousands of Cambodians and, historians say, facilitated the Khmer Rouge takeover. After the Khmer Rouge lost power, the U.S. secretly supported them as a guerrilla force, fighting the Vietnam-backed Hun Sen government. Misiewicz says he looks at the relationship's future, not its past.

Mr. MISIEWICZ: When I read through the history and I look at the policies, it's nothing that really I go back and question or worry about. I really look about at the future, and the future is Cambodia needs help. And I think they'll take help from anybody. And at this point in time, the United States is available to do that.

KUHN: So is China, which reportedly gives more aid to Cambodia than any other nation. As China flexes its political and economic muscles in the region, the U.S. is emphasizing its ties with Southeast Asia. This year, Cambodia became the latest Southeast Asian nation to join the U.S. in bilateral naval exercises, aimed at preparing for joint humanitarian or military missions in the region.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Phnom Penh.


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