Yieng Yann’s childhood was unlike anything her audience of Dalton Middle School seventh-graders have ever experienced.
Terrorized by Khmer Rouge soldiers in a country undergoing political upheaval during the late 1970s, Yann and her family were driven from their Cambodian home when she was just 7 and forced to live in the jungle for four years. There were no bathrooms, no medical care, no real homes — just forced labor in the rice fields and sneaking around after dark to keep her family alive, Yann said.
“I had to start learning how to climb trees and all that in order to get the fruits and stuff for the family to eat,” she said. “I could have been caught and killed, but that is the risk and the chance you take when you’re trying to take care of your family. I didn’t have any friends. It was really hard to have friends because you couldn’t trust anyone.”
Yann spoke to about 200 students on Wednesday as part of a study in empathy. Greg Nobles, who teaches language arts and English language learners, said this is the second year Yann has spoken to students. The true story of Yann’s sister, Linn, was featured in the 1986 Walt Disney movie “The Girl Who Spelled Freedom.” The movie tells the story of a Cambodian family who immigrates to the United States as refugees who can’t speak English. One of the children — Linn — later goes on to win a spelling bee in her new country.
Yann is now an investment banker and lives in the Chattanooga area. She was brought to the area at age 12 thanks to an American family who sponsored the Yanns to immigrate to the U.S.
Students were full of questions for Yann after having watched the movie and learned her story.
“I think it was pretty impressive how she suffered and made it through,” said seventh-grader Sabrina Sanchez.
Even before the Khmer Rouge regime forced them and other families from their homes, the Yanns were not privileged. They went to the market every day because they had no refrigerators. The children were not educated, and neither were their parents. Yet they were hard-working, not because they necessarily wanted to be that way, but because they wanted to survive. Anyone who didn’t obey the soldiers was in danger of being whipped or killed. Yann said the soldiers would make examples of people who disobeyed by publicly beating them and dragging them through the fields.
After several years and a war that left the people living in the jungle finally free from their oppressors, the Yanns and others ventured out. The Vietnamese soldiers had taken over at that point, she said, but they wouldn’t let them return home. Many families tried to immigrate to Thailand, but the soldiers there kept turning them away.
At one point, a group of refugees were turned back over to the Khmer Rouge by some Vietnamese soldiers who didn’t want them in Thailand, but there was heavy rain that day, and the soldiers didn’t immediately kill them or even watch them the entire time, assuming they were too weak-bodied and weak-willed to run away in the rain. The adults in the group debated what to do, and eventually they decided to flee. They got only as far as crossing a raging stream when many, famished and weak, decided to give up. At that time, one of the soldiers who had turned them over to the Khmer Rouge appeared and urged them to keep fleeing or else be killed, Yann said. They thought it was a trick, but he kept insisting. Finally, they continued their journey. When they turned around to thank him, no one could find him, she said.
“It wasn’t until much later when I became a Christian here in the states that I remember reading that angels can take the form of a human or anything and help you in a time of need,” she said.
Finally, they escaped to a refugee camp where the American Red Cross and AMG International assisted them. An American family in the Chattanooga area sponsored them to come to the United States, and they were able to enroll in school there and begin a more normal life.
Yann said her brothers had intestinal parasites when they arrived and were on medication for a long time. Yann herself was at almost 12 years old, just three feet tall and weighed only 54 pounds. None of the children spoke English, and they still carried emotional scars from their lives in the jungle.
At recess, they ran out into the woods and hid. They made a little bed for themselves out there. It was what they were used to. From then on, teachers had to watch them closely at recess. They were afraid of many things.
Yet Yann said she was always happy in school. It was so much better than anything she had been used to.
“All the kids always wondered if I was just crazy or if I was drinking coffee or if something wasn’t right,” she said. “They thought I was just a little bit off.”
“We eventually learned how important it is to get a good education,” said the investment banker. “The more education you have, the more confidence you’re going to have because of the knowledge you have.”
Nobles, whose wife is from Thailand, said he knew Yann from seeing her at Asian grocery stores in the Chattanooga area they both visited. He had wanted to show his students “The Girl Who Spelled Freedom” for a long time, he said, but he had trouble tracking it down.
Dalton Middle teacher Caroline Mooney said she worked with Nobles to track down the movie at a library in Chattanooga only to find it didn’t play very well. The teachers later began looking for Linn to come speak to their students, searching for her on Internet databases and calling doctors offices when they found out she was involved in selling pharmaceuticals. They were unable to reach Linn, but Nobles’ friend who owns an Asian grocery store where Yann shops helped connect the two after Nobles said he was trying to reach her.
He said he’d love for Yann to come back every year.
“We want our kids to know what it’s like to put themselves in somebody else’s shoes and imagine what it’s like to be that person,” he said.