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GROTON — Students at the Groton-Dunstable Regional Middle School received a lesson in courage and faith last Monday when a survivor of Cambodia’s infamous “killing fields” came to speak to them about his experiences living under the regime of the genocidal Khmer Rouge.

“The only way to survive was to be strong,” Syphorn Phan told a group of students that filled the lecture hall at the Middle School North building. “You had to be mentally, physically and spiritually strong.”

Phan, a pharmacist at Lowell General Hospital’s oncology unit, was only a boy in 1975 when the communist Khmer Rouge overthrew the U.S. backed government of Cambodia and under Pol Pot, proceeded with its plan to take the country back to its agrarian past.

“The story of my survival and coming to America has always been with me so it’s not difficult to tell,” said Phan of any hesitance to revisit those dark days when death was always near at hand. “I just relate my experiences as they happened. But with young children, I’ve found that it’s a good idea to bring along some slides to give them a better idea of what it was like in those days. As disturbing as the truth was, sometimes it’s good for them to know the facts.”

And the facts of Phan’s story of survival were incredible and horrible.

Soon after the United States abandoned Vietnam in 1975, communists there and in Cambodia were left with no one to oppose them. The governments in South Vietnam and Cambodia were soon overthrown after the Khmer Rouge emerged from their stronghold in the highlands through which ran the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Though frequently warned that if the communists succeeded, there would be a bloodbath in Southeast Asia, no one at the time could have foreseen just what that would mean under the Khmer Rouge. According to Phan’s firsthand account, he and his family joined the entire population of the country’s capital in Pnom Penh as their new rulers forcibly evicted them from the city.

With no plan to support the people once they obeyed orders to leave the cities, hundreds of thousands were fated to die lingering deaths of malnutrition and exposure in the surrounding jungles over the next few years. Others were literally worked to death in what Phan said was a deliberate attempt at genocide by the Khmer Rouge.

In the jungle, people were forced at gunpoint to break up into work gangs and Phan soon found himself separated from his family as his gang was sent into the jungle to work. There, little food was to be had as he and others were forced to scramble to find whatever they could to eat, including rats. Unable to bring himself to eat a rat, Phan risked his life using a forbidden campfire to cook rice that he buried in a cloth sack underneath the flames.

With no medical supplies, any kind of accident could prove life threatening, such as the times when the young Phan nearly died after he stepped on a fish hook or was ordered to collect honey from wild bees that ended up stinging him hundreds of times in a chase through the jungle.

In the end, he was only one of two members of his original work gang to survive and by 1979, found himself imprisoned and jammed with hundreds of others in an abandoned school building. He managed to escape forced labor only after the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia and, evading crossfire between the warring armies, finally reunited with his mother and two brothers and together, they crossed the jungle reached the border with Thailand.

Safe in a Red Cross refugee camp, Phan relearned the English and his family eventually applied for immigrant status to the United States.

Throughout his ordeal, Phan told students last Monday, it had been his dream to come to the United States. The dream had kept him going when all seemed hopeless and in 1981, when he finally arrived at Boston’s Logan Airport, the first thing he did was to get on his knees and thank God for his safe arrival.

Later, he returned to school and graduated from college with high marks as a pharmacist, got married and today has a pair of young sons of his own.

“Dreams do come true,” Phan concluded as students peppered him with questions about his experiences.

“I thought it was amazing what he went through,” said 10th- grader Drew Gentile. “It was just a pretty sad story but he finally made it to America and became successful. He was right when he said that dreams do come true.”

“I was just thinking about how he made it through all that,” reflected fifth-grader Jacob Llodra. “It was probably the hardest time in his life… It makes me realize how much of a lucky guy I am (to live in the United States).”

Phan was invited to speak at the Middle School by members of the Peace Foundation and the Bookmakers and Dreamers Club after some had seen an article on him in The Sun.

“I was just so touched by his story,” explained board member Jayne Kulisz. “Not only about how he survived in the jungle but his message that education was a great part in his resettlement story. It was an important message for the kids to hear.”

“I think it’s an honor to have him here, sharing with us his wonderful memories of those times,” commented Middle School principal Steve Silverman. “It fits in well with the students’ work on their Peace Book.”

“I thought his story was just awesome,” concluded fifth- grader Kira Hill. “How he lived through it with the help of friends… His whole story was just so cool.”