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.
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.
Rosharon, Texas: Yani taught Savan Keo (no relation) and other Cambodian refugees how to farm organic Asian vegetables.
Deron Neblett
Rosharon, Texas: Yani taught Savan Keo (no relation) and other Cambodian refugees how to farm organic Asian vegetables.
Community activist: Yani urges parishoners at the Cambodian Buddhist temple to fill out their census forms.
Deron Neblett
Community activist: Yani urges parishoners at the Cambodian Buddhist temple to fill out their census forms.
Full-moon ceremony: The monks must eat before noon. Then they eat no more for the rest of the day.
Deron Neblett
Full-moon ceremony: The monks must eat before noon. Then they eat no more for the rest of the day.

"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.

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.

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.

One Tuesday morning Yani recruits the latest arrivals, from Sudan, to help her clean one of the three Alliance warehouses. All morning and afternoon she throws things out, moves them around, consolidates them, dusts. Someone has just agreed to donate 100 mattresses to the organization. But the acquisition of stuff is a complicated matter, the details many. Who will move the mattresses? How many trucks are needed? And where to store them? "If I don't find places for it, I lose it. And we need it." Yani says.

So what if she's 61. Yani will show up in a truck to move furniture herself if she has to. Indeed, she has. The agency doesn't spend one penny on furniture, she declares happily; all of it, including office furniture, is donated. With mattresses in mind, she starts cleaning at nine in the morning. At three, she returns to her office, her voice mail filled, the phone interrupting her conversations, people constantly knocking on her door. In spite of the activity surrounding her, the things that need to get done, Yani's office is peaceful, redolent with jasmine, filled with plants, both real and fake.

Caseworker Khao Vu pokes his head in the door. Would Yani notarize something for him? She is the only notary public at the Alliance, so many citizenship papers bear her name, her stamp. Khao is all smiles. Even his hair, buzzed short and standing up, seems to smile. He explains his job with a grin: "I make everyone American."

This business of making people American began for Yani in the early '80s when she found a cluster of 15 unoccupied homes in the northeast end of town and managed to place 15 families in them. A little Cambodian village, she called it. Then she approached the YMCA about starting a refugee resettlement program. There, she hired Kassahun Bisrat, himself a refugee from Ethiopia, as a caseworker. In 1985, Yani and Kassahun incorporated their own nonprofit agency, the Refugee Services Alliance. The Alliance opened its doors in 1986.

Now called the Alliance for Multicultural Community Service to reflect its aid to all immigrants, not just refugees, the southwest Houston agency employs 48 people speaking 15 different languages. The Alliance assists in all aspects of an immigrant's life, from meeting him at the airport to providing health care to driving him to the credit union to open an account. Kassahun estimates that the Alliance has served more than 50,000 individuals. Adjustment usually takes four to five years. The most difficult cases are the single moms who lost their husbands in warfare. "It is especially hard for the mothers, for her to overcome all of this," he says. "In most of the countries, like in Africa, the males are killed. In Asia, too, they have a policy of killing all the men."

Recently the Alliance was just one of 16 agencies across the country to receive a federal grant of $2 million. With the aid, they match, at a rate of two to one, a refugee's savings toward the purchase of a car or home or for education.

Most crucial, though, is when a refugee first arrives. The Alliance houses new immigrants, rent-free, for a month in its "Welcome Center," an apartment donated by a Chinese-American businessman. Other residents at the apartment complex know the immigrants that pass through the Welcome Center as the "Yani people."

"It's Yani!" she says, knocking at the apartment door, checking on the newest Americans. The door cautiously opens to reveal the latest Yani person, a tall, dark-skinned man, Omer Kerim Ali. On the couch behind him, absorbing static American television, is Joseph Tati Haron, 32. And out of one of the two bedrooms shuffles Esako Auqilino Wani, 44, sporting a Galleria baseball cap on his beginning-to-gray head. Each fled Sudan's civil war and met at the Kristan refugee camp in Ghana, where they remained for two years.

The bedrooms in the Welcome Center are sparsely furnished with three king-size beds and a couple of chairs. Internationally themed posters adorn the walls, hinting at the many kinds of people who have lived there. Just 12 days in the United States, the three are optimistic. They will do well, Yani says; they already know English.

Omer has left a wife behind; Joseph, a girlfriend. Yani says the first question she asks new immigrants is if they have family back home. Usually it's easier to bring over one person at a time, instead of a whole family all at once. "When I'm working to bring wife and child over, I'm so happy," she says. "That makes me keep going. I'm always at the airport to meet them. I like to have them together. I went through the loss of family. It's hard to live without family."

In the emotional upheaval of scattered and separated people, Yani has built a new family for herself. "Everybody calls me their mother. Even after they move away, they still ask me to visit." Once she traveled to Washington State to visit former clients.

Yani and Saoroth have personally sponsored many Cambodian refugees. Keo is not an uncommon surname, and she has brought over many families bearing her same name, regarding them as her adopted children. "I lost my brothers and sister. I didn't know them," she says of the refugees. "I just pick, pick, pick."

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."

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."

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?"

E-mail Melissa Hung at melissa.hung@houstonpress.com.

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