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.

It was generally expected that Saoroth would choose Marguerite. After all, she was two years older, more mature, graceful and ladylike. "She's very calm, a woman's way," Yani says. "I'm not."

Instead Saoroth picked the tomboy. "I like her because of the way she play like a boy. And the way she make decision very quick," he says of Yani. "I like her because she's not scared of anything."

So at 15, Yani, who had never dated, married a man almost twice her age. But first she exacted a promise from her grandmother: that she be allowed to return to school after she married, an unusual move for a Cambodian woman at that time. At 17, Yani had her first child, a boy, but she continued her studies.

The man behind the woman: Saoroth Keo was director of Cambodia's railroad. He and Yani fled just 13 days before the country fell to the Khmer Rouge.
Deron Neblett
The man behind the woman: Saoroth Keo was director of Cambodia's railroad. He and Yani fled just 13 days before the country fell to the Khmer Rouge.
Welcome center: The Alliance houses new refugees, from Sudan, rent-free for a month.
Deron Neblett
Welcome center: The Alliance houses new refugees, from Sudan, rent-free for a month.

Saoroth became director of the country's railroads. Yani had three more children. She didn't have to work; his family owned a rice farm. Instead she traveled -- in Asia, in Europe, leaving the children in her mother's care. ("The nice thing about Cambodia is you have relatives and servants to take care of you," she says.) Abroad, she'd meet up with president Lon Nol's wife, who valued Yani as an interpreter. Yani speaks Cambodian, French, English and some Vietnamese and Lao. In this leisurely manner, Yani traveled away her twenties.

Then the fighting began in the early '70s. The Khmer Rouge started attacking at the border, bombing small villages first, then moving toward the center. Refugees poured into Phnom Penh like streams of displaced fish, gasping in air. Yani helped organize a volunteer refugee aid group, composed mostly of ambassadors' wives, putting her own life at risk. "When we drive somewhere," Yani recalls, "we have bullet-proof car because they tried to kill me."

The Khmer Rouge, Saoroth explains, had no tolerance for people who worked with foreigners, especially Americans. "Even if you are humanitarian. Every American to them is the enemy. In their mind they are imperialists. But we didn't care. We need to help the refugees."

One time he and Yani were delivering a station wagonful of milk to a refugee camp when rockets barely missed them, blazing into a nearby building. Yani had thought, for a moment, that their own car had been hit, so scorched was the air surrounding them. But they continued on their way. "I was scared, too," Saoroth says, "but I say, what happens will happen. You cannot escape from that."

Yet Saoroth and Yani did escape, two of the lucky few. If it was their association with Americans that put them in extra danger, it was also what saved them. Yani remembers the exact date: April 4, 1975. An American, General Palmer, told Saoroth that the Khmer Rouge were closing in and that they had to leave immediately.

"I say, 'Can I go by my house to get some things?' " Saoroth recalls. "He said, 'No, you have to leave now.' " The couple's three oldest children were already out of the country, at a boarding school in Paris. By the time Yani met Saoroth with their youngest child, 11-year-old Sorith, the engines of the C31 military plane were already whirling. The private plane left for Bangkok with only those three passengers. In spite of the hasty evacuation that forced them to leave with just the clothes they were wearing, Saoroth and Yani thought they would be able to return in a few days. They didn't believe the country could fall in 13 days.

"Before I left, I went to see the president and told him that I have to leave and to be careful, it's dangerous," Yani says of the last time she saw her friends and family. "I stop by my mother's and tell her I'm going to be gone a few days, because I used to go to Bangkok all the time."

When they arrived in Thailand, Yani continued to Paris to join the three oldest children. But Saoroth loved his country too much; he wanted to return. ("I couldn't leave my office like that," he says.) The prime minister, who had been abroad at meetings, met Saoroth at the Cambodian embassy in Bangkok. Let us all go back, he had said. The communists meant to improve the country. "That's what everybody think," Yani says. "They thought it would be better. A lot of people were killed. Most of them were innocent."

But Saoroth did not have his passport, having left in such a hurry, and on a private jet. Another official warned that he would be detained at the airport without a passport. In the time they discussed this, the prime minister left without him. When the plane landed in Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge killed everyone on board. "I thought he was on it," Yani says. "I didn't know until five months later when I found out he was alive -- in Houston."

Yani didn't even know where Houston was.

Many refugees relocate to Houston because of the warm climate and the low cost of living. When the Alliance first opened its doors, it saw only Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian and Ethiopian refugees. These days the refugees are from Africa, Bosnia and Vietnam.

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