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.

In all the years she cared for others Yani heard no news of the family she had left behind in Cambodia: her mother, three brothers, sister, nieces, nephews and two brothers-in-law.

In 1991 the Keo family returned to their homeland for the first time since they had left, attending a conference in Malaysia on rebuilding. "Seventeen years later we go back and find out all of them were killed," Yani says. "We don't know where; we don't know how." The country had deteriorated so much, it was unrecognizable to her. "I was lost. It was very dirty. We couldn't find our home. Everything had completely changed.

"It was very sad. I never thought they can kill everyone in my whole family like that. Not one alive."

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.

During that trip Nanda saw student demonstrators shot and killed. And the terror of that stirred a determination for change in her. "I wanted to go back and help be part of the reconstruction of my country. I had a good memory; I never thought of living in a different country." So Nanda told her husband she was going back. He said he would come too. The two ran for national assembly in different provinces in 1993. They both lost.

During her campaign, Nanda says, she saw few women running for political office, which spurred her to create Women for Prosperity in 1994. "I was raised here [in America] and worked here. Then I saw Cambodian women, how hard they have to struggle to make themselves heardŠ.They think they respect women by telling them they don't want them to do anything but become a good mother and wife to the husband. But they did not allow women to express or exercise their rights. It's like we are told what we can do. And that's called being a good woman."

Just now she came from a Washington, D.C., conference called Vital Voices, hosted by Hillary Rodham Clinton. Women around the world shared stories of what worked and what didn't in their respective countries.

Nanda didn't understand sacrifice when she was younger, when her mother was trying to provide for 13 children in Paris. But now she knows what it means to give up your personal life for a greater good. Her mother and grandmother were her examples. The women in her family have always been strong, she says. Like her mother's, Nanda's work creates a contradiction in her life. While the loss of family renders what family she has left that much more valuable, she hardly has time to see them, so committed is she to serving her community.

When Nanda moved back to Cambodia in 1992, she took her infant son with her but left two teenage children behind with Yani. The children say they understand, but Nanda knows it's hard for them. They, too, won't fully comprehend until much later.

If Yani is ever angry, she doesn't show it. Sure, she says, she is angry sometimes, when she thinks of the innocent people killed, like her mother, nieces and nephews. When the anger and stress threaten to unravel her, she gets in her purplish-blue Pontiac Grand Am and drives south on state route 288, past Pearland, past Iowa Colony (population 675), to Rosharon, about 40 minutes outside of Houston. And there, among the manufactured homes with tinfoil insulation, the prisons and the cows, she takes comfort in how far her farmers have come.

One Sunday morning Yani and Saoroth bounce along the dirt roads to the Rosharon Cambodians' temple, its entrance at once ornate and humble. In the large temple kitchen they greet several men on a lunch break. Some of them are helping a neighbor build a new house. Some are digging a pond adjacent to the temple so they can hold canoe races for the Cambodian new year. Tradition, they say. Fish fry in a wok sitting on a tripod over a gas flame. Several trays are spread out on the floor. Everywhere Yani goes she is fed.

At first the farmers rented land from the government at 50 cents an acre. By 1992 they had saved enough to buy their own farms, at $7,000 an acre. And they didn't need Yani's aid to sell crops anymore. But when Yani stopped, no one else bothered to get an organic license. The crops are no longer certified organic, but the demand remains high. The farmers now sell directly to private restaurants and grocery stores. Yani has lost count of exactly how many acres the 30 families now own, but she estimates earnings of $35,000 per acre. Which means, even at a conservative estimate, the families are generating over $4 million a year.

"See how nice their houses are," she says of their wealth. "They build it themselves." The house on one farm is purposely inconspicuous from the outside with bland white siding, but inside, the living room is dominated by a big-screen TV, the three bedrooms decorated in fine fall-colored linens, the kitchen bright and airy.

The queen likes to see her people doing better than she is. She likes to see them bundling the crops she taught them how to grow. She kneels among a patch of water spinach, picking stalks. When she helps other people, she's too busy for anger.

"You only have one life to live," she says. "Why you need to hate each other?"

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