Bora Chiemruom was 1 when the Khmer Rouge separated her family. It was 1975, the year the communist revolutionaries seized power and set out to create a collective agrarian society, labeling intellectuals enemies of the people. Chiemruom’s father, a teacher who spoke seven languages, was shot dead, along with his wife’s parents.
Chiemruom was put in a children’s camp. “I didn’t see a lot of the horror that was happening,” she says. Pol Pot’s regime would go on to slaughter an estimated 1.2 million to 2.8 million of its own citizens, one-quarter of Cambodia’s population, before toppling in 1979.
In 1981, after two years in a Thai refugee camp, Chiemruom and her surviving family members were able to join an uncle in the United States.“For a little over a year, seven of us lived in Chicago in a studio apartment,” she says. “At one point, I remember I slept under a pullout couch with my twin sister, with our grandparents on top of us.”
“All of our friends would joke about hating school lunches,” she says. “I loved it. It was food.”
Her immediate family later moved to Lowell, where a guidance counselor suggested college. “People were still in survival mode,” she says. “All they wanted was their children to finish high school and go to work and help support the family.” Chiemruom worked to pay her own way, “but it was money diverted from the family,” she says. Her mother and stepfather, also a victim of the Khmer Rouge, “did not understand at all.”
With a desire to be in service of others, Chiemruom became a teacher, then worked in nonprofits, including as program manager of the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association of Greater Lowell and executive director of the state’s Asian American Commission.
Times have changed, acceptance has changed. But in the beginning it was really tough, because how do you integrate new immigrants that you don’t know anything about?
She now runs Kravant Boutique, a dress-rental business she created to help all young women unable to buy expensive evening wear, and continues to volunteer to help newcomers “Times have changed, acceptance has changed,” she says. “But in the beginning it was really tough, because how do you integrate new immigrants that you don’t know anything about?”