Yani Rose Keo: Losses and Gains in a Houston Grand Opera Story

Check out our interview with librettist Catherine Filloux.

Twelve years ago, the Houston Press wrote a cover story on Yani Rose Keo, a fabled refugee in Houston who'd gone on to work with the Alliance Center and help the constant stream of refugees coming to Houston.

Entitled "Cambodian Queen" and written by Melissa Hung, it also told the story of how Keo and her husband had arrived in Houston after escaping from Cambodia as the Khmer Rouge were taking over in 1975.

What followed, of course, was far different and now her experience has been wrapped into an operetta commissioned by Houston Grand Opera's HGOCo as part of its Song of Houston, East + West series, entitled New Arrivals and written by Catherine Filloux and composer John Glover.

"We thought we could stay in Bangkok a couple days and we could come back," Keo says today. She said goodbye to her mother, intending to come back for her if needed. Instead, "I never see my mom again."

Keo and her husband were both educated and fairly well off. Her father was a judge and her mother a dancer for the royal family. Keo had been busy with refugees in Cambodia. Put all those ingredients together and they made the perfect targets for Pol Pot and his regime. The couple left in a private jet with their youngest children -- their three older children were students in Paris -- and found things almost immediately worsened after their departure.

Still, her husband went back to Cambodia. "We didn't know that people would be killed." He was supposed to come back to his family on a certain flight and when that plane crashed and everyone on board was killed, Yani was a widow. Fluent in French, she was able to get a job as a pediatric nurse, but her children had to drop out of boarding school.

It was months later that she found out her husband hadn't been allowed on the flight because he was missing his passport and had actually survived in a camp and was eventually sent to Houston under the sponsorship of Catholic Charities.

There weren't too many other happy endings at that point. "The communists killed all my family. Because we were educated," Keo says.

Once in Houston in 1985 -- and despite her concerns about cowboys and guns here -- Keo plunged right back into refugee work, co-founding the then-Refugees Service Alliance. After 37 years, the interim executive director of Alliance -- now called Alliance for Multicultural Community Services -- gives out scholarships to refugee kids. Oh, and one other thing she's proud of: On July 31 she and her husband will have been married 59 years.

Performances of New Arrivals -- all of them free -- are as follows:

Saturday, June 16 (world premiere) 1 p.m. Baker Ripley Neighborhood Center (6500 Rookin St.) Part of Houston's World Refugee Day

Sunday, June 17, 4 p.m. Rothko Chapel (3900 Yupon St.)

Tuesday, June 19 at 7 p.m. Baker Ripley Neighborhood Center (6500 Rookin St.)

Friday, June 22 at 7:30 p.m. Asia Society Texas Center (1370 Southmore Blvd.)

Saturday, June 23 at 2 p.m. Asia Society Texas Center (1370 Southmore Blvd.)

For information, call 713-228-6737 or visit the opera's website.

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Margaret Downing is the editor-in-chief who oversees the Houston Press newsroom and its online publication. She frequently writes on a wide range of subjects.
Contact: Margaret Downing