Author shares story of survival with students, faculty

Author Marin Yann brought his life story to the Beach Auditorium earlier this week: a story of oppression, orphanism and survival.

In his presentation to approximately 60 students and faculty on Wednesday, Yann shared details from his life that he chronicled in his book “The Last One: An Orphaned Child Fights to Survive the Cambodian Killing Fields.”

Yann discussed the challenges he faced as a six-year-old orphan living under the rule of the Khmer Rouge, a communist organization that took control of Cambodia in 1975 and was responsible for the death of more than two million Cambodians.

As a child, Yann would put on performances for the Khmer Rouge, pointing a toy rifle at Khmer Rouge members and re-enacting the killings of Cambodians. Yann said that at the time, he enjoyed the plays but came to wonder if he or his family were considered enemies.

“I was conflicted,” he said. “I hated the Khmer Rouge, but I liked living with them.”

When he wasn’t entertaining, Yann said he worked in rice fields, keeping birds from eating the crops and building water canals. If birds landed, he said his life would be threatened by the Khmer Rouge.

“I was always hungry, like a starving puppy,” Yann said.

Within a year, his family was gone. Yann said his mother and younger brother died from illness, and his sister was sent away to work in a girl’s camp but she never returned. The Khmer Rouge also took his father away, and he never returned either, leaving Yann alone at age six.

Yann then wandered through the forest, eventually reaching a refugee camp in Thailand. He eventually left the camp, but by age nine, he was homeless. At 15 years old, he made his way to America.

“It was nine harsh years before I moved to America in 1984,” he said.

Due to the brutality he suffered as a child, Yann said he developed PTSD.

“I never admitted it, but through writing this book, I overcame that,” he said.

According to his website, Yann came up with the title “The Last One” because he was the only one from his family who survived the genocide.

Maura Cotter, an applied anthropology graduate student and president of the Anthropology Graduate Student Association, said it was important to bring Yann as a guest speaker to campus because of the anthropology department’s ties with the Cambodian community.

“As anthropologists, we really like the idea of storytelling as a way to give a voice to people’s ideas,” Cotter said. “I hope that students will learn more about the Khmer Rouge from [Yann’s] personal story.”

In 2006, Yann earned his bachelor’s degree in criminal law from Royal University of Phnom Penh in Cambodia and a master’s degree in public administration from Cal State Dominguez Hills.

Yann said that when he meets people, many ask about his life story.

“These are the two most challenging questions for me to answer: How I lived and how I survived are very complicated and cannot be explained in one sentence … or fifty sentences,” Yann writes in his book.

Yann is an advocate for the Cambodian-American community, and he has volunteered for the agency Friends Without A Border to help build a children’s hospital in Siem Reap, Cambodia, according to his website.

Today, Yann serves as a board director for Building Your Future Today, a Cambodian nonprofit organization.

Yann said he wants people to learn from his story to never give up hope.

“Hope and perseverance [are] the most important things in life … Life is a challenge, but you have to challenge every aspect of it to be successful in life,” he said.

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