Refugee Narratives: Ten Stories of Cambodian Refugees

The Work of Sister Paula Goettelmann

Sister Paula Goettlemann (pictured on far right in the image below) travelled to the Cambodian refugee camps in November 1979 as a part of a group of six Sisters of the Holy Cross, who had volunteered to serve in this capacity. They were responding to a call, issued by Catholic Relief Services,  that asked for  assistance in the relief effort for the Cambodian refugees since their need was “very great” (Thailand_J5-1_5_4). Catholic Relief Services requested that all volunteers wishing to take part in the relief efforts commit to staying in Cambodia for three months, and they expressed the preference for volunteers that had a background in nursing. Sister Paula, alongside Sisters Helen Marie, Kathryn Callahan, Maureen Grady, Miriam Paul, and Madeleine Marie, volunteered to travel abroad Bangkok, Thailand to provide services needed to the refugees, answering the call put out by the Catholic Relief Services to serve those in areas of need.

During her time in Thailand, Sister Paula wrote letters back to her home in Boise, Idaho describing her experiences during her work in the refugee camps. She states that she resided three hours away from Bangkok, in the town Sa Kaoew, and that the refugee camps were another hour away from Sa Kaoew. The sisters stayed in a three-story building which was a center for the nuns working at the camps. In their living area, she describes that the sisters had “straw mats on the floor and sarong partitions between the beds. Our mosquito nets are up” (Thailand_J5-1_4_22_1(2)). Sister Paula goes on to explain that if the volunteers were too tired to journey back to Sa Kaoew after their long days working in the camps that they were allowed to sleep there instead.  When they slept in the camp,  she writes that they slept “in tents. There are no bathroom facilities and very little water. It is beautiful— 90-94 degrees, and very humid” (Thailand_J5-1_4_22_1).  Sister Paula goes on to recount that, while she was there, the camp population comprised, “30,000-40,000 people, all except the sick, living with a plastic sheet as a tent over their heads'' (Thailand_J5-1_4_22_1(2)). Sister Paula worked with several Danish volunteers to provide intensive care and nutrition for newborn babies and their mothers. There were four volunteers who worked in the newborn area of the camp, and they were responsible for  “24 hours for a group [of refugees] who [were] on their way to the camp area but not well enough”  to yet be transferred (Thailand_J5-1_4_22_1(2)).

Upon her return from Thailand, Sister Paula was interviewed by a local Idaho newspaper about the work she did within the refugee camps. In this interview, she explains that she was one of six sisters sent to Thailand to work in the refugee camps for three months, and she states that the camps she worked at along the border of Cambodia were not “run as refugee camps, but as prisons” (qtd. from the Idaho Register in Thailand_J5-1_5_41_1). According to the United Nations, the people staying in these camps were not considered to be refugees, but were instead categorized as illegal aliens, so they were not allowed to leave the country to migrate to safer nations. In the article, the author states that “the Thailand National Guard watches the camps with orders that anyone caught leaving the area is to be shot on sight”. 

Despite the poor living conditions and treatment of the Cambodian refugees, Sister Paula made strong efforts to get to know those staying within the Khao-I-Dang Camp, stating that they were “very bright and intelligent people. They are very proud of their country, as it was before all their problems, and of their civilization” (Thailand_J5-1_5_41_1). During their time there, the sisters also helped the refugees to learn English, because the refugees “felt that it was their chance to get into another country.” These teaching sessions helped Sister Paula to build stronger relationships with some of the camp inhabitants, and those refugees began to tell her the stories of their own lives under Pol Pot’s regime. When she returned to America, “Sister Paula came back to Boise with a book of letters and descriptions written by the interpreters who were in Cambodia. In their own words, they tell what happened to their people and their country” (Thailand_J5-1_4_41_2). The refugees compiled this book at the request of Sister Paula.  Once she had developed relationships with them and had begun to learn their stories through conversations and the drawings of their lives that they created, she asked them if they would be willing to “put their experiences into writing.”  They agreed, and the short volume they produced is the subject of  our digital exhibit.

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