Coventry HS students hear first-hand stories of survival

CHS students hear first-hand stories of survival
By MICHELLE COLE 05/28/2004

Coventry Courier, RI
May 28 2004

COVENTRY – High school students from across the state heard firsthand
the stories of survivors during Coventry High School’s first annual
History Symposium last Thursday.

The theme for the day was “Terror and Tragedy in the 20th Century,”
and presentations focused on three infamous historical events: the
Armenian genocide; the Holocaust; and the Cambodian genocide.

Nicole St. Jean and Mackenzie Zabbo, two CHS seniors, organized
the history day as part of their CIM project. The students had
participated in a “Terror and Tragedy” unit in their 11th grade
history class and decided to pursue the issues as their CIM project
to share the experience with others, according to Matthew Brissette,
social studies chairperson.

Five schools attended the History Symposium last Thursday, packing
about 450 students into the high school auditorium to learn from the
guest speakers.

“If [the students] can see things firsthand, it’s going to have that
much more profound of an impact,” Brissette explained.

With moving presentations from the survivors, students learned how
some childhoods end suddenly and tragically as young children are
caught in the crossfire of government changes and warfare.

For Loung Ung, one of the three guest speakers, her childhood – with
its memories of going to the movies with her father and sitting on
his lap eating fried cricket snacks – ended when a new regime took
power in Cambodia.

She was five years old.

In 1975, Ung’s family joined in the mass evacuation of homes from
the city of Phnom Penh and was forced to try to farm in primitive
“labor camp villages” in the countryside. She shared memories of
malnutrition and starvation and how she ate charcoal – imagining it
was cake – for her sixth birthday.

These changes were part of the new Khmer Rouge regime’s desire to
create a utopian agrarian society, Ung explained, and any who were
different or did not conform to this ideal were killed. Ung told
students how both of her parents – as well as 20 other relatives –
were killed by the regime. At nine years old, she was orphaned and
had to train as a child soldier.

In 1979 the Vietnamese army defeated the Khmer Rouge, and Ung was
able to escape the country. Today, she speaks to audiences about the
dangers of land mines – which still threaten the people in Cambodia
decades later – and the need for justice and peace. She is the
author of First They Killed My Father: a Cambodia Daughter Remembers
(published by HarperCollins in 2000).

“Peace is a choice. Peace is an action,” Ung said. Other speakers
included Moushegh Derderian and Alice Golstein. Derderian was born
in Turkey in 1911 and is a survivor of the Armenian genocide. From
1915 to 1923, more than 1.5 million Armenians were killed by the
Ottoman Turkish Government in a move to exterminate all of the
two million Armenians from the multi-ethnic Empire, according to a
handout. Golstein was born in Germany at the beginning of the Nazi era
and experienced many of the devastations leading up to the Holocaust.

“[The History Symposium] went very well for the first time,”
Brissette said. “Most students seem to be pretty positive [about
the experience].”

Brissette said he hopes the history day will continue in the coming
years through student organization and departmental support.