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Remembering Hak Phlong, A Survivor Of The Cambodian Genocide Who Died Of COVID-19

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

As the number of people lost to coronavirus in the U.S. ticks towards 600,000, we wanted to take a moment to remember someone who lost her life at the peak of the winter surge.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Hak Phlong survived the Cambodian genocide and later became a beloved member of Chicago's Cambodian American community. She died in December from cardiac arrest while fighting COVID-19.

MELINDA CHUM: The most amazing woman in the world, you know, a woman with such great substance.

KELLY: That is Melinda Chum, Phlong's daughter. Hak Phlong was a mother working as a midwife and a nurse when the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia.

CHUM: I think I was about 9 or 10 years old when they took over.

CHANG: Phlong told a Chicago Tribune reporter in 1987 that the Khmer Rouge sent her and her children to forced labor camps where death, brutality and starvation were daily experiences. And she lost a son during that time.

KELLY: Eventually, she was able to make her way to a refugee camp in Thailand. Then, through the Cambodian Association of Illinois, an American sponsor helped Phlong and her five kids move to Chicago. Now, Phlong did not speak a word of English when she arrived, but she enrolled in classes at Truman College and started winning awards for speaking, reading and writing.

CHUM: She's one person who I admire, and she's my hero. And that signifies strength and a person who will never give up.

CHANG: Phlong raised her kids alone. But Chicago's Cambodian American community is tight-knit, and Phlong was an active member.

CHUM: She loves people, and she loves to dance. She's the life of the party everywhere she goes, and everybody loves to dance with her and be around her.

KELLY: Melinda also remembers her mom for her generosity and strength.

CHUM: We try our best to not let her down. But more importantly, we did it for her because we saw the way she struggled and how she fought for us to be here, you know, brought us here to America. It's not an easy task for a woman.

CHANG: Her daughter says that even though she doesn't necessarily believe in the afterlife, she can still feel her mother's spirit all over her.

CHUM: When I was sitting down on the floor - you know, we ask for forgiveness; we thank her; we ask her for - you know, to take care of herself but also to take care of her children - and I started to cry so hard. And the smoke started to come down and envelop all over me. So my family, they all saw that. And they were like, wow. They were getting goosebumps all over. They're, like - they couldn't believe it.

CHANG: Hak Phlong, a survivor of the Cambodian genocide, a beloved member of Chicago's Cambodian American community and a proud mother and grandmother. She was 90 years old. She died December 2, 2020.

(SOUNDBITE OF VASEN'S "SLUNKEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.