Kunthear Mam-Douglas Retraces Her Escape

Documentary to include sisters’ return trip to native Cambodia

Kunthear Mam-Douglas of University Park traveled to her birth country, Cambodia, last year to retrace the journey her family and many others took to escape after the Khmer Rouge regime seized power in the 1970s.

An estimated 2 million people – about a quarter of the country’s population – were killed during the Khmer Rouge occupation from 1975 to 1979, according to the USC (University of Southern California) Shoah Foundation.

Mam-Douglas came from a well-to-do family in Cambodia before the regime took power. Her father was an educator and a gemologist.

“The Khmer Rouge – they wiped out everything … to the agricultural base. Banks gone, stores gone, theaters gone,” she said. 

As the educated in the country were targeted, her family was forced out of their home. Their journey took the family of then eight from the Cambodian countryside to refugee camps in Thailand. They applied for refugee status to immigrate to the U.S. and spent nine months in the Philippines awaiting resettlement. They eventually settled in the Houston area with the help of the International Rescue Committee. 

Her father got a job with a mapping company before they were encouraged to move to California for more opportunities. Kunthear said her father still struggled to find work that would use his education and language skills from Cambodia, so he went back to school.

“It was very hard for my dad to adapt,” she said.

Mam-Douglas attended the University of California Berkeley and met her future husband, Scott, while she was there and he was at Stanford. Much of her family still lives in California, but she and Scott ended up in Dallas, where he teaches at SMU. 

Late last year, Mam-Douglas met her sister, Kalyanee, in California, and they traveled to Cambodia together. 

Kunthear Mam-Douglas received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Mad Hatter’s Tea at the Dallas Arboretum on April 20 and told the crowd about her recent trip back to Cambodia.

Kalyanee is an award-winning documentary filmmaker. Her 2013 directorial debut A River Changes Course captures the stories of three Cambodians struggling to maintain their way of life amid development.

“My sister and I tried to retrace, based on my memories,” Mam-Douglas said.

Beyond retracing their journey, Mam-Douglas said she and her sister focused on the impact of the genocide on Cambodian society. Their trip will be included in a new documentary, but distribution details were uncertain at press time.

Recently, Mam-Douglas, known for her involvement with the Women’s Council of the Dallas Arboretum and elaborate hats, arrived at the 2023 Mad Hatter’s Tea on April 20 in an ornate crown, dress, and train decorated with photos, including from Cambodia, and told the crowd about her experience as she received a Lifetime Achievement Award.

“I am a genocide survivor,” Mam-Douglas said. “I came to America almost 47 years ago, and just last year, I went back. … I retraced my path, but yet, I retraced … millions of Cambodians, the lives that they lived, the struggles that they endured, the separation of family.”

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Rachel Snyder

Rachel Snyder, former deputy editor at People Newspapers, joined the staff in 2019, returning to her native Dallas-Fort Worth after starting her career at community newspapers in Oklahoma. One of her stories won first place in its category in the Oklahoma Press Association’s Better Newspaper Contest in 2018. She’s a fan of puns and community journalism, not necessarily in that order.

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