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.

Later, when asked how he feels about Yani, Joseph replies without hesitation, "It's true, she's our mother now."

On Sunday mornings Yani meets her real children at a Buddhist temple nestled in a Latino neighborhood in north Houston. Soudeth Keo is a factory manager. Rothmoni Kou works in marketing. Sorith Keo is an accountant. And Nanda Pok followed her mother's example, returning to Cambodia to start a women's rights group.

A gray wall surrounds the temple compound, the lacy script of the Khmer language painted on it. The temple is an old house, and the parishioners sit where they can, on the mat-covered floors of the living room and kitchen. They sit with their legs to one side, facing the four monks clad in their resplendent orange. They chant, holding their hands up vertically, palm kissing palm, occasionally waving them slightly up and down, the same way they do when they greet each other. The women wear scarves tied from shoulder to waist. Small colorful flags crisscross the ceiling, the seven colors representing the mind of the Buddha. Someone at the microphone leads the chant. They chant and chant, and some of the grandchildren, who are in their teens, sit at a dining room table in the back, bored. They chant in a monotone, so different from the varied inflections of their speedy language. Their chanting becomes a humming, a way of nearing peace.

Before the altar sits an offering tree, tinsel-like ornaments hanging on it, money clipped to its branches. Yani passes a roll of string among the congregation. Touching the string is a way of touching the monks. (Monks are not allowed physical contact with females.) The full-moon ceremony ends with renewed chanting, and by the next full moon they will be worshipping in a newly built temple off Aldine-Bender, its red roof designed in the elegant pagoda style, just in time for the Cambodian new year in April.

Then the congregation offers food to the monks, bringing bowls of rice, pickled vegetables, spicy noodles and spring rolls in trays and stacked steaming bins. Continuously they bring out dishes until, impressively, almost the entire living room floor is covered by a quilt of food. The monks must eat before noon; then they eat no more for the rest of the day.

Yani, vice president of the temple, rises to introduce her guests. A reporter and photographer are not the only visitors, though. State representative Senfronia Thompson shows up in time for lunch. Cardi Chung, from the Census, urges the community members to fill out their census forms. She lays down the rules: Do count visitors who will be staying in the country for more than six months. Don't forget to count your baby if it is due before April. "We are counting on Yani to count the Cambodians," she says.

Yani estimates there are 80,000 Cambodians in Houston, and an additional 2,000 in surrounding areas. But there were none when she first arrived. "My come to USA is kind of funny," Saoroth says. "I'm the first Cambodian refugee to put his feet in Houston."

Sponsored by Catholic Charities of Houston, Saoroth lived with Paul and Mary Lu Doyle and their nine children. Paul Doyle helped Saoroth find a job at an engineering firm. Working as a clerk for AE Services Inc., Saoroth dutifully made copies and filed papers, if only to learn English. When he could converse better in several months, it was discovered that he was quite a knowledgeable draftsman. "I said, 'Give me something to do, but don't tell me how to do it,' " he recalls, eager to prove himself. (Twelve years later Saoroth became a partner in the firm. At 73, he is now retired.)

From Houston, Saoroth contacted Yani, who had joined her sister in Paris. Between the two sisters were 13 children; four were Yani's, two were Marguerite's, and the rest were children of friends whom they feared were dead and hoped were in refugee camps. During the day, Yani worked as a pediatric nurse. In the evenings, when she returned home, she stitched garments for extra income. The older children, like Yani's daughter Nanda, took part-time jobs.

Tears trickle down Nanda's face when she recalls those times. "We used to have everything in Cambodia, and all of the sudden we have to struggle to live," says Nanda, who was 14 at the time. "And she didn't know what her family was going through, and my dad was in the camp. It was very hard for her at the time. And I didn't realize it, until I have a job and family of my own."

In a year Yani and the children joined Saoroth in Houston. Yani worked as a nurse in a clinic. She helped teach ESL classes at HCC for seven years. Then she started the Alliance and the farm.

Paul Doyle watched her undertakings with awe, describing Yani's work as "unbelievable and immeasurable." "She's been a real Florence Nightingale -- not just for the Cambodians, but for many of the different nationalities," says Doyle, now 86.

Then he reconsiders. Maybe he misused the Nightingale comparison; Yani does so much more than heal the injured. "She finds employment for them, she finds housing, she buries their dead, she cares for their sick. She's an all-around assistance to them, more than a nurse."

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