Following herstory in USA Today, and with Hollywood executives and publishers pursuing her screenplay and novel, I had the opportunity to speak with Dr. SreyRam Kuy about her book,The Heart of a Tiger.
Below is my interview:
“Forty years ago, my family was driven from our home at gunpoint…”
Is The Heart of a Tiger a fiction or non-fiction story?
SreyRam Kuy: Forty years ago, to this very month, my family was driven from our home at gunpoint, forced on a mass exodus out of the city along with millions of other Cambodians and herded into the jungles to being a life of slave labor.
This April is the 40th anniversary of the start of the Killing Fields. My family was living in Phnom Penh, the capitol city of Cambodia at the time. Naively unaware of what lay ahead, we thought this was a temporary trip. We were wrong. It was the first day of a four year journey to hell on earth.
The Heart of a Tiger is a true story. It is the story of my experiences as child escaping from the Cambodian Killing Fields, living in refugee camps and coming to the United States. It is the story of my mother’s life growing up in rural Cambodia, her dream to achieve an education in a culture where women were not encouraged to be educated, and then her fight to survive and save her family during the brutal Khmer Rouge Regime.
The names and some details have been changed, but it is the true story of my family and the extraordinary miracles God has done in our lives. The Heart of a Tiger is a journey of courage, faith, and forgiveness through one of the worst atrocities in human history.
What are the Killing Fields? Was it a real event and when did it happen?
SreyRam Kuy: The Killing Fields refers to a number of mass graves in Cambodia where millions of people were executed during the Cambodian Genocide enforced by the Khmer Rouge regime. This was a real event, though now forgotten by many. Under the leadership of Pol Pot from 1975 to 1979, the brutal Khmer Rouge inflicted one of the worst atrocities in human history. Under this regime, being educated was a crime. Anyone who was a teacher, doctor, government official or intellectual was targeted for execution. Cheoung Ek is one of the well-known mass graves from the Killing Fields. Today, it serves as a memorial to this atrocious time in human history. Housing thousands of skulls from the victims of these mass graves, this memorial reminds us of this evil chapter in human history. It is vitally important to never forget these tragedies, whether it is the Holocaust, the Rwandan Genocide or the Cambodian Killing Fields in order to honor the memory of the millions of human lives lost and to ensure that history does not repeat itself.
Why did you decide to write this book, The Heart of a Tiger, about your mother and your family’s experience in the Killing Fields of Cambodia?
Dr. SreyRam Kuy: I wrote this book to encourage others. This book is a testimony to God’s incredible love and amazing grace. He has brought my family through so much. We have seen miracles after miracles in our lives. My message in this book is that despite what obstacles you face, God is greater than any obstacle. Despite how bleak your circumstances, God’s grace is sufficient to enable you to emerge victorious.
My family lived through a Genocide. At least 3 million people died during the killing fields of Cambodia, either through execution, brutal torture, starvation, disease, or despair and suicide. However, God saved us time after time from execution by the Khmer Rouge soldiers, from starvation during the inhumane conditions of the Killing Fields, and from the thousands of land mines that riddled the borders of Cambodia during our escape.
If I can inspire someone to have hope through this story, then my time was well spent. Jesus tells a parable about a wealthy man who gives each of his servants talents. To one, he gave one talent, to the other two talents, to the last he gave five talents. The one who got 5 talents, put it to work, and earned 5 more. The one who got two talents, put that to work and earned two more. But the person who received one talent, was scared and buried it in the ground. I don’t want to live in fear. I want to have the courage to boldly go out and uses every gift that I’ve been blessed with. That means making the most of every day I’m blessed to live in this incredible land of freedom. Being successful is not determined by how much wealth you amass, but in how many people you help along the way.
The Heart of a Tiger, is a story about finding hope where there is no hope. It is a story of a woman that refuses to give up no matter how bleak her circumstances are. It is the story of a woman whose love for her family gives her the courage to overcome brutal atrocities. When you have a love and a faith that is deeply rooted, the storms of life may come, but it will not defeat you.
My hope in writing this book is to honor the legacy of the three million lives lost during the Cambodian Genocide. Their lives need to matter. By remembering this legacy hopefully we can learn from humanity’s tragic history to prevent it from repeating itself. The Heart of a Tiger is a searing story of courage, faith, and forgiveness through one of the worst atrocities in human history. This is a story that you will never forget.
What is your mother's best trait?
SreyRam Kuy: Courage and stubbornness. As a young girl living in 1950’s rural Cambodia, my mom was a stubborn child, which was both a blessing and a hindrance. She dreamed of obtaining an education and becoming a teacher. However, her spirited and rebellious nature was a contradiction to cultural norms and her old-fashioned father’s ways of thinking. Her father believed that women should not be educated, as this made them “uppity” and insubordinate to their husbands. However, my mother stubbornly kept going to school despite daunting obstacles. Going to school wearing raggedly clothes, and lacking the money to pay for books and fees, she stilled excelled in school and became a teacher.
However, just as she began to enjoy the fulfillment of her dream, the entire country of Cambodia hit a political crisis. This started in the early seventies during the Cambodian Civil War and took a ruthless turn for the worst after the bloody war was lost to the communists as the Khmer Rouge takeover of the country. Pol Pot had a savage quest; he ordered the execution of all educated citizens, beginning the systemic murder of teachers, doctors, musicians, artists, government officials. Anyone identified as educated was executed, tortured or enslaved. Being educated was now a crime. The elite become the third class citizens of society and subsequently; the first to be killed. Under the leadership of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge were responsible for the slaughter of three million human lives during the Cambodian Genocide.
After working so hard to achieve an education, my mother now had to hide her identity as a teacher and my father’s identity as a government official in order to save their lives during the four brutal years of the Killing Fields.
When the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia, a lot of people gave up in despair. Among those who weren’t executed, some even committed suicide to escape the horrors of the regime. My mother, however, stubbornly refused to ever give up. She faced the Khmer Rouge killers with the same steely resolve that helped her succeed in school. While everyone was starving during communist regime, my mother faced tigers in the wild jungle to find food for her family. When taken to be executed by the Khmer Rouge, she defied them, multiple times, and lived to tell the stories to her children. This book, The Heart of a Tiger, is a collection of those stories I grew up hearing as a child. This is the story of my mother’s incredible courage and stubborn will to survive. I don’t think my mother was fearless. Who wouldn’t have fear living in the middle of a Genocide? However, she refused to let that fear to win. She fought to live, and to save the lives of her family. My mom really does have The Heart of a Tiger.
What is the message of The Heart of a Tiger?
SreyRam Kuy: The first, and most important message of The Heart of a Tiger is that God is greater than any obstacle. Despite how bleak your circumstances, God’s grace is sufficient to enable you to emerge victorious. God has a way out, and up, even when you see no way out.
Second, never give up. Be confident in the dreams that God has put in your heart. If he gives you the dream, he will give the means to accomplish it. If God isn’t giving up on you, don’t give up on yourself! As a girl, our mom had to fight to get an education. It was not an easy battle. But she refused to give up on her dream, despite the obstacles, and in the end was able to achieve her dream.
Third, appreciate the people that God has put in your life. When the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia, and people were driven out of the cities to live in the jungles to work in forced labor, all the money you had was worthless. There were people who lugged suitcases of paper cash with them during the exodus from the capitol city, Phnom Penh, and then learned it was worthless. But it’s the family and friends that we had that enabled us to survive. We took care of each other.
The Heart of a Tiger is a story of resilience. No matter what you are going through, or how many failures you have stacked up against you, never, ever give up. Hold on to your dreams, your family and your faith.
What is your impression today of Cambodia?
SreyRam Kuy: Cambodia is a land of gentle, kind people. But beneath that gentle exterior is an extraordinary resilience. A country’s greatest treasure is in its culture and its intellectual capital. Cambodia was robbed of its culture. All artists, poets, and musicians were executed during the Killing Fields. The guardians of the country’s heritage were targeted for destruction. Teachers, doctors, nurses, and other educated people were murdered. And yet, despite this staggering loss, Cambodia endures.
The Cambodian people are like the ancient Angkor Wat temples. Built by the ancient Khmer many centuries ago, it was magnificent and the crown jewel of Cambodia. However, the country was sacked by invaders, and the Angkor Wat temples sank into ruins, swallowed by the vast jungle. For centuries, only tigers roamed the ruins and the strangling roots of the Banyan tree enveloped the temple, until it was rediscovered hundreds of years later.
Today, the Angkor Wat survives, breathtaking it its beauty even with the scars from its battles, much like the Cambodian people. The Angkor Wat is stunning in its resilience. This spirit of resilience lives in its people.
Cambodia is rebuilding from the rubble of the Killing Fields, slowly and painfully. Young people are relearning and reviving the ancient ballets of Cambodia. Schools are being rebuilt and young people are learning to become teachers, nurses and doctors.
However, the landscape of Cambodia is still pockmarked with ugly reminders of warfare and death. The countryside is littered with landmines. This has taken a severe toll on the people. It is estimated that 4 to 6 million landmines and other unexploded artillery remain in Cambodia. Cambodia has one of the highest rates of land mine associated amputees in the world, with a third of casualties being children. The efforts of wonderful organizations such as the HALO Trust, the Mines Advisory Group and celebrities such as Angelina Jolie, to try to eradicate this lingering cancer on the country are invaluable. Keeping the momentum going is important, as it is estimated that it will take another 10 to 20 years clear these mines.
As the sun sets on a horrific period in humanity, Cambodia's resilience much like the majestic Angkor Wat, persists in the hearts of its people. Burnished in the fire of a human hell called the Killing Fields, but strengthened by an enduring courage, the people of Cambodia truly do have The Heart of a Tiger.
How has the experience of the Killing Fields shaped your point of view?
SreyRam Kuy: Our family, we’ve known what it is like to not have a penny to our name. In Cambodia, after the Khmer Rouge regime was overthrown, and the country was rebuilding, we had nothing to our name except the ragged shirt on our back. We had no food. My mom took my sister and me out to the rice fields, while it was being harvested. We walked behind the workers, trying to gleam any leftover rice. At the end of the day we did not even get a handful of rice. They cleaned it bare. The man loading the rice wagon, took pity on us, he called us over to him. He gave several handfuls of rice to my mom. My mom brought it home, and pounded it down, and we got a can of rice from that. That can of rice was all the food we had. My mom took a small portion, and made porridge for the family. That was life in Cambodia after the war. Knowing where we come from, makes us appreciate all the opportunities here in the United States. America is truly, truly the land of opportunity. That experience was one of the turning points that made my mom decide to leave her homeland, and make the dangerous escape from Cambodia in order to give her daughters an opportunity for a better life.
Then, shortly after we escaped from Cambodia into a refugee camp in Thailand, we were wounded by a bomb in the refugee camp. We were awakened from our deep sleep when this happened. My mom was the most critically injured, sustaining massive abdominal injuries. I sustained head trauma and my sister had wounds on her extremities from the shrapnel. A German Red Cross surgeon performed a laparotomy on my mom, saving her life and operated on my sister and me. These experiences taught us to appreciate the blessings, the opportunities and the freedom that we have now. And it demonstrated the extraordinary capacity for human kindness to rise in the face of evil atrocities. I am grateful to that volunteer surgeon, who left behind his family, his country, and the comforts of his ordinary life, to come to a squalid refugee camp, and take care of Cambodian refugees.
Because of his sacrifices and my mom’s courage, I’m alive. Today, as a surgeon myself, I take care of our nation's veterans. What a blessing to be alive, to have the opportunity to live in this beautiful land of freedom, and to have the chance to go after your dreams!
Where would you be today, if your mom hadn’t managed to escape with you and your sister?
SreyRam Kuy: There are so many different scenarios for that question… None of them very good. Even though Cambodia is actively rebuilding, there is still a great deal of poverty. After Pol Pot was overthrown, and the Killing Fields ended in 1979, the entire country struggled to rebuild. My mom was extraordinarily innovative, and managed to make a meager living walking from village to village peddling wares. However, she realized that that there was no opportunity for her daughters to have a chance at a better life in post-war Cambodia. The entire infrastructure had been destroyed, the people decimated and the landscaped razed. That’s why my mother decided to leave behind her homeland and her relatives, and make the dangerous escape out of Cambodia. We had to evade land mines and armed border patrol, in order to make our way out of the country. Scott Neeson, who runs the Cambodian Children’s Fund has done some amazing work with some of the children living in extreme poverty in Cambodia. This is just one example of the severe degree of destitution in Cambodia. That would have been my life, if my mom hadn’t had the courage to leave in search of a better life for her children.
Do you feel you are different from most Americans?
Dr. SreyRam Kuy: My story isn’t that different from most Americans. As Americans, we can trace our ancestors back to a Catholic Irish immigrant escaping the potato famine, a Jewish Polish refugee fleeing Nazi persecution, or a manacled African chained in the belly of a slave ship. The story of America is one of perseverance, ingenuity and a great deal of courage. The story of my family’s survival and escape from the Killing Fields of Cambodia is my story as an American. This story of courage is at the heart of America. As an American, I am proud to contribute to this heritage of courage, perseverance and resilience.
As a top surgeon, looking back, where did you motivation to succeed come from?
SreyRam Kuy: Like countless other immigrants who came to the shores of America seeking the dream of a better like, my mother and our family arrived in the United States; destitute, unable to speak the language, and ravaged by memories of the unspeakable atrocities of the Killing Fields. However, through faith, courage, and the bonds of familial love, my mom found hope and a new life in the US. Teaching her daughters a strong work-ethic, my mother scrubbed toilets as a housekeeper at the local hospital during the day and cleaned houses in the evening. In the summers, our family work in the strawberry fields of the Willamette Valley alongside Mexican migrant farm workers. Embracing the freedom and opportunities of this new country, my mom instilled in her young daughters a fierce passion for life, the courage to face obstacles head-on, and a deep gratitude for the blessing of a chance at a new life. I owe everything I am to my mom. Her courage, resilience and unwavering faith are my inspiration. The fact that I survived, when three million other people lost their lives during the Killing Fields, is astonishing and humbling. I am so grateful to be alive, to live in America, a country of freedom, and to have the opportunity to pursue my dreams.
I don’t really think I have a motivation to succeed. Instead, I just have a gratitude for the miracles I’ve experienced and the opportunities I’ve been blessed with. That’s the reason why I do the work I do as surgeon. It’s also the reason why I wrote this story. My hope is that The Heart of Tiger will warm your heart, inspire you to have courage, and uplift you to see the blessings around you.
About SreyRam Kuy:
SreyRam Kuy, MD, MHS was born in Cambodia during a genocide known as the Killing Fields. After escaping from Cambodia, as a young child living in the refugee camps in Thailand she was severely injured during a bombing. Her life was saved by a Red Cross surgeon volunteering in the camp. Today she's a surgeon herself, taking care of our nation's injured veterans. The Heart of a Tiger is the story of her family’s survival during the Khmer Rouge’s Killing Fields.
She was sponsored to the United States by a Christian Missionary group. She grew up in Oregon, graduated as Valedictorian from Crescent Valley High School, and attended Oregon State University where she earned dual degrees in Philosophy and Microbiology. She attended medical school at Oregon Health Science University, then finished general surgery residency in Wisconsin. She earned her master’s degree at Yale University School of Medicine.
Dr. Kuy’s passions are healthcare quality, medical education and underserved patients. As a Barbara Jordan Health Policy Scholar, she worked for Senator Tom Harkin, writing speeches and policy briefs on women’s health, coverage for breast cancer treatment, Reauthorization of the Older American’s Act, and health care instrument safety. She was appointed by the American Medical Association to serve as a Board Member on the National Board of Medical Examiners, which governs licensing exams for all US physicians. As a Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholar at Yale, Dr. Kuy completed a prestigious health policy and health services research fellowship. She has published her research in JAMA Surgery, Journal of Vascular Surgery, American Journal of Surgery and other publications. Dr. Kuy’s text, “Fifty Studies Every Surgeon Should Know”, will be released by Oxford University Press in 2016. She also published an editorial in the Los Angeles Times and the American College of Surgeons’ Bulletin on physician advocacy for patients.
Currently, Dr. Kuy serves as Director of the Center for Innovations in Quality, Outcomes and Patient Safety at the Overton Brooks VA Medical Center and Assistant Professor of Surgery at Louisiana State University-Shreveport. Dr. Kuy’s work is guided by a deep faith in Christ and a gratitude for the experiences she’s been blessed with, which have enabled her to make a meaningful contribution to her patients and her profession.