Cambodian Queen

Yani Keo flies under the radar of most Houstonians. But if you're a refugee or an Asian-American leader, you know how important she is.

Between forefinger and thumb, Yani Keo holds a freshly clipped blade of grass, wafting it softly in the viscous humidity of a greenhouse. Smell, she says, from where she's crouching, offering the bit of green. The scent is unmistakable: lemongrass, sweet and strong. She rises to survey the rest of the crops. At her feet rows upon rows of water spinach glisten in their bubble enclosure. Maneuvering carefully on the narrow dirt paths, she snaps a leaf off a tree, then bends to take a leaf from each of the three different kinds of mint. Here, she offers again, smell these. She breathes deeply, inhaling the fragrance of cut grass and morning dew, the smell of the success of her people.

Fifteen years ago Yani thought of farming as a way to help older Cambodian refugees who were unable to find work in the city. She tried to get a rice farm going in Tomball, but for some reason the grain didn't turn out too well. Then she thought of organic Asian vegetables, a niche market she found entirely wide open. Ethnic grocery stores and restaurants were importing from Hawaii and California. No one in Texas was growing them.

But first Yani herself had to learn how to farm. After work she'd drive 80 miles each way from her north Houston home to Rosenberg to take classes to earn her organic farming license. She learned how to drive a tractor, dig a well, run irrigation. Then she showed the refugees how to do it. The Cambodian farmers settled in Rosharon, just south of Houston. Under Yani's direction and license, they sold to local wholesalers, Fiesta and Whole Foods. Today 30 Cambodian families farm in Rosharon, generating millions of dollars in income.

In her mother's footsteps: Nanda Pok returned to Cambodia to start a women's rights group.
Deron Neblett
In her mother's footsteps: Nanda Pok returned to Cambodia to start a women's rights group.

"See," Yani says beaming, standing outside a greenhouse fashioned out of a plastic tarp with wood framing. "See how they build their own cooler. They build their own greenhouse. They even build their own house they live in." She smiles proudly at how they have grown, these farmers who are like her children.

If you aren't a local Asian-American leader, or a refugee receiving aid from her nonprofit agency, the Alliance, then you probably don't know Yani Keo. You don't know her wide, easy laugh and her dedication to helping newly arrived immigrants. If you are part of the Cambodian community, then you see her everywhere, with her colorful blouses pinched by a thin gold belt, her hair a mystery, worn always in a bun, its length hidden. Wherever she goes, she emanates an aura of energy, a true sign of a leader in her community, the queen of Cambodians in Houston.

If someone in the Cambodian community dies, Yani helps organize the funeral preparations. If someone is getting married, she sews a gown in the traditional ornate fashion. If the wedding is called off, Yani counsels and arbitrates, a scarf, her trademark accessory, floating around her neck.

"I tell them," she says, "let your boys and girls choose their loved ones." Sometimes it's hard for them, the first-generation immigrants, coming from a culture where parents arrange marriage, where their own marriages were fixed. It is not unheard of, Yani says, for parents to commit suicide when their children refuse to wed the ones they've handpicked. So deep is the sense of loss, the perceived disrespect, the contumacious crumbling of their culture.

For they have overcome so much, they say, to land here in this country. Never mind that people sometimes snarl at them, "Go back to your country," for there is nowhere to go.

And Cambodia produced countless refugees. In 1975 Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge declared it "Year Zero," sealing the country off from the rest of the world, forcing the truculent transformation of Cambodia into Democratic Kampuchea. The cities were turned inside out, their inhabitants sent to the countryside for re-education. "Bourgeois elements" were eliminated, anyone with education: doctors, engineers, teachers. Anyone who wore glasses. More than two million people starved to death or were executed.

Back then, right before the country fell, Yani was the educated, bourgeois wife of a high-ranking official. She helped organize volunteers to aid refugees who fled the fighting.

Then the refugee worker became a refugee herself, she and her husband narrowly escaping. Family members they left behind were all killed. Even now she does not know where, how. She tries not to dwell on it, and busies herself with helping others who have the same stories to tell. Because to Yani the story of her family is the story of her people and what human beings are capable of: ruthless genocide or the selfless rebuilding of lives.

Ask Saoroth Keo how he met his wife, and he laughs gently. He didn't just meet her; he was betrothed to her before she was even born. His father was a judge, her father was a judge, and the two judges decided that if Yani's mother had a girl, that child would grow up to be the wife of Saoroth. Yani's mother had three girls (and three boys).

Saoroth was 12 when Yani was born. Although his father worked in the capital, Phnom Penh, as did Yani's father, his family lived several hours away in Kampong Chan. Saoroth remembers looking after Yani sometimes when he visited, bathing her, putting her to sleep. After attending college in Phnom Penh, he studied engineering in Paris. Most well-to-do Cambodians studied in Paris; they sent their children there for boarding school. When Saoroth returned to Cambodia, his father said it was time for him to marry. He had a choice between Yani, 15, and her older sister, Marguerite.

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