‘It’s just so beautiful. It’s like you are going to go to heaven,’ Sodany ‘Maria’ Vong says, recalling the moment when, after two gruelling nights of walking barefoot and exhausted through dense jungle, she arrived at the perimeter of the of the Khao I Dang refugee camp in Thailand, near the Cambodian–Thai border.

In the middle of nowhere, you can see this light shining all over the place, and that’s where you’re going to go.

But despite the sense of heavenly welcome that the camp’s floodlights evoked for Maria—just 15 when she and her younger sister made the perilous journey across the border to the camp in 1981—her ordeal was not yet over.

When Pol Pot came to power in Cambodia in 1975, the lives of millions of people were thrown into disarray. The genocidal purges of the Khmer Rouge caused the deaths of between 1.5 and 2 million people, roughly 25 per cent of Cambodia’s population. Those with professional qualifications were often targeted for persecution.

Maria grew up in Cambodia during this tumultuous time, the eldest of seven children in a close-knit Catholic family. Her parents, both trained nurses, kept their qualifications hidden from the authorities to keep their family safe, describing themselves as ‘normal workers’ to survive the purge.

When Pol Pot’s regime was overthrown by a new Vietnamese-backed Communist government, the situation improved slightly, but Maria’s parents still didn’t feel safe, worrying that the terror of previous years could resume at any moment. So they made plans to leave the country.

When Maria’s parents asked her if she would like to travel to ‘the West’ ahead of the rest of the family, she readily agreed. ‘Because it’s an opportunity, you know … I’d heard that if you go to another country, you can study.’

Her first attempt to leave was thwarted when she was caught and sent back. But her mother didn’t give up, organising for Maria to travel with her 12-year-old sister and her cousin’s family, first to a refugee camp on the Cambodian side of the border and then across the border to a Thai refugee camp on the other side—a ‘horrible’ journey usually undertaken over the course of two nights under the cover of darkness.

Embarking on this journey was a leap of faith. News rarely filtered back to Cambodia about the fate of those who had gone before, so those setting out had little idea of what they were getting into.

‘This journey—if you knew the dangers or the scary parts, then you wouldn’t come,’ Maria says.

But you didn’t know, because people who left the country, you never heard from them, so they’d either get to the camp or they didn’t ... They don’t tell you the story at all … You just make your trip.

Compounding this sense of uncertainty for Maria was the real possibility that the rest of her family might be prevented from following her and that she would not see them again.

Her family had put enough gold together to pay a guide for Maria’s journey across the border. ‘You come across to the refugee camp on the Cambodian border, you stay there for a few days, and you wait for some kind of opportunity.’ The stakes were high for those risking the journey: ‘You either make it or you are dead or you are raped.’

On the night of the group’s departure, they left the Cambodian camp with their guide at about midnight, along with a larger group of people who travelled regularly between the two camps to trade food and other goods. Maria’s cousin medicated her baby to keep her asleep—and quiet—on the dangerous journey.

There was no path through the dense jungle, so it was a difficult trek, their guide using the moon to navigate. They began their journey in thongs ‘because that’s what Cambodian people wore’, but the thongs were soon lost or abandoned, so they continued in bare feet, arriving at the border at about 4 or 5 in the morning.

At the border—a deep ditch, patrolled by Thai guards—Maria’s guide was able to calculate the amount of time they would have between the patrols to make their crossing. When the moment came, Maria had to drop down into the ditch and then get up the steep embankment on the other side. ‘And that was scary,’ she says, ‘because when I got down there, I was little, and the other people tried to pull you up, and I’m thinking, “What happens if you can’t be pulled up, and the patrol car’s coming back?”’

On the other side of the border, as the sun rose, she and her companions hid in the bushes, keeping very still and quiet for the rest of the day to avoid arousing the suspicions of the Thai farmers who were working in the surrounding fields, within sight of their hiding place.

When night fell again, they made their way towards the Khao I Dang refugee camp, which sheltered almost 140,000 refugees at its peak. As they approached, the light from the floodlights filled Maria with hope. But the camp was surrounded by wire, and the armed sentries posted around the perimeter were known to shoot at refugees trying to break through the fence. Once inside, Maria and her sister would be able to register with the UN for protection, but getting in wasn’t easy.

Again, they bided their time. When the sentry’s shift ended and the new guard still had not arrived to replace him, they seized their opportunity, pulling the wire open and climbing though. The floodlights meant there was nowhere to hide, so Maria and her companions made a terrifying dash from the fence to the nearest bamboo hut. It wasn’t far, ‘but it’s long when you’re scared,’ she says.

It’s like you’re not there. You’re not really alive; you just run.

The trauma of that journey has stayed with Maria. ‘It doesn’t matter how much they might pay me to go back that way again, no way. Even a million dollars—it’s not going to happen.’

In the hut, they were met by a welcoming party who washed them, tended to their wounds, gave them new clothes and found them a bed. By then it was well past midnight, but Maria couldn’t sleep. ‘You just keep shaking like a little bird,’ she recalls. In the morning, they were fed and taken to register with the UN as refugees.

Over the next six months, her family all made it across the border to join her in the camp. First, one of her younger brothers arrived with their aunt, accompanied by the same guide who had brought Maria—in a romantic twist, the guide and her aunt eventually married.

Later, her father arrived with another brother and her four-year-old sister, who was carried all the way by her father, making a lucky escape when they both stumbled into a deep well.

Finally, their mother arrived with the remaining brother and sister. By then, they had run out of gold, so her mother had begged the guide, promising to repay him later, and eventually he had agreed, worn down by her persistence.

During their time in the camp, Maria’s parents—both French-speakers—worked in clinics run by Médecins sans Frontières, where Maria also found work, training informally in midwifery and being paid in extra food rations. While conditions were still basic, this work allowed them to live more comfortably than others in the camp. ‘We were blessed,’ Maria says of the two years they spent at Khao I Dang before finally being granted refugee visas.

The family applied for visas for both the USA and Australia—they had relatives in both countries who could act as sponsors—but Australia granted them a visa first, so they took ‘the bird in the hand’, setting off to make a new home in a land and culture very different from their own.

Arriving in Melbourne, Maria’s first impressions of her new home were of open spaces and sparsely populated outer suburbs. As they travelled from the airport to the Midway Migrant Hostel in Maribyrnong, she looked in vain for the skyscrapers and bustling metropolis she had associated with ‘the West’.

While grateful for the support they received, the family struggled to adjust to a new culture, language and cuisine. In hindsight, Maria can appreciate the meals prepared by the hostel’s chef, but as a newly arrived Cambodian girl, the concept of a ham sandwich confounded her and the smell of cheddar cheese made her gag. For a time, the family got by on packets of two-minute noodles smuggled into the hostel.

While at Midway, they met an elderly religious sister, Sr Mary Power, who became their good friend and protector. She was kind, generous and formidable—‘Power by name and power by nature,’ people said of her. As well as picking them up each Sunday in her minibus to take them to Mass in Braybrook, Sr Power provided clothes, organised for Maria and her siblings to attend Catholic schools and for the tuition to be covered, and helped the family navigate an unfamiliar culture and make friends, including many within the Jesuit community and the Cambodian Catholic community.

The family’s first Australian friends, David and Lisette Hannan—met through Catholic connections—instructed her in some of the finer points of Australian culture, even buying her a roll of Glad Wrap and showing her how to wrap up her chicken roll when they discovered she had been wrapping her lunch in advertising pamphlets. Later, David helped her find the office administration job that she has held for more than 36 years. Godparents of Maria’s daughter, they remain close family friends to this day. ‘All you need is a few good friends, right?’ Maria says.

Maria’s parents made enormous sacrifices to bring their family to Australia and to make a home for them here. Although professionally qualified, they worked long hours as fruit-pickers in Australia to provide for their children, and in the early years, the family of nine lived in a two-bedroom unit in Nunawading. While money was scarce and there was little privacy, the family have remained close. ‘The more brothers and sisters, the better!’ says Maria, who still lives near her siblings.

‘Blessed’ is a word that Maria uses often. So many things could have gone wrong for her and her family, but as she says, her story has ‘a very happy ending’.