Stephen Golub: This Thanksgiving, Let’s Be Thankful for What We Don’t Have

By Stephen Golub, November 23, 2023, previously published in the Benicia Herald

Benicia resident and author Stephen Golub, A Promised Land

Each Thanksgiving, and whenever I need to remind myself to feel thankful, my mind turns to an interview I conducted in a Southeast Asian refugee camp decades ago…

Back in 1985, fresh out of law school, I was dispatched by a U.S. human rights group to document and write a report about a torrent of abuses against 370,000 Cambodians who had escaped across the border of their war-torn homeland to find precarious shelter in refugee camps in Thailand. Most had languished there since fleeing the 1979 Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia.

The savagery threatening the refugees took appalling forms: unspeakable brutality by Thai soldiers assigned to protect them, by rampaging gangs of Cambodian bandits and by Cambodian resistance militias battling the Vietnamese occupation, ostensibly on their behalf; deadly shelling of the camps by Vietnamese artillery based just a few miles away, in Cambodia; and brutal repression in the few camps controlled by the remnants of the fanatical Khmer Rouge regime, which had once ruled their country in a reign of terror. 

Every day for over two weeks, I spent dawn to dusk interviewing as many victims as my (non-refugee) Cambodian interpreter/guide could find. At the end of the trip, in Bangkok, I met with a Thai general who dismissed his troops’ cruelty with the glib observation that “boys will be boys.”

That chat was a doozy. But an interview with a particular refugee stood out far more. The memory has both haunted and moved me over the years…

Darkness was descending on the largest refugee camp, Nong Samet, when a furious, feisty, elderly woman rushed up to my interpreter and me. She’d heard that we were seeking victims to interview. We met with her and her 15-year-old granddaughter in a bamboo hut. The first thing that caught my eye was the circular scar, a healed bullet wound, spanning the girl’s wrist.

Getting shot was not the most recent attack that she had suffered, however. Just a month before my visit, a Thai soldier had viciously assaulted the girl, apparently as punishment for her sneaking to a banned edge of the camp to get water. She described the crime through a sea of tears. The crippled wrist, crushed spirit and brutalized body seemed to encapsulate the terrors visited upon her people. 

Many months later, colleagues and press coverage informed me that my resulting report, along with other types of pressure, helped spark Thai government action to better protect the refugees. But the abuses did not come to an absolute end until 1993, when a peace treaty finally led to the Vietnamese army’s withdrawal from Cambodia, the camps’ closure and the refugees’ repatriation.

Why in the world am I recounting this story, from so long ago, on the cusp of Thursday’s happy holiday? 

Each Thanksgiving, we break bread with friends and family. We toast with those loved ones. We’re thankful for what we have, as well we should be. 

But we might also pause to be thankful for what we don’t have. 

By and large, in America and other privileged nations, we don’t have our lives filled by wars, starvation, devastation and repression that plague many parts of the globe. Most of us don’t have the hunger and poverty that mar the lives of millions of fellow Americans.

While giving thanks, perhaps we can pledge to take whatever small steps we can toward the cures for such ills, at home or abroad.

My point here, however, is not just about suffering. It’s also about the incredible human spirit, strength and courage that enable people to survive horrific situations and to help each other despite the dangers and deprivation they face.

I have no idea what became of the specific refugees I interviewed in Nong Samet and the other camps back in 1985. But I do know that the remarkable resilience of the Cambodians there enabled most of them to endure, so as to eventually return home safely or resettle here in America. 

With all of this in mind, this Thursday, I’ll reflect on a post-it note I wrote years ago. I still have it stuck to the corner of my laptop screen. 

I glance at the note almost every day. I particularly value it when I’m feeling less than thankful and need a reminder about my own blessed lot in life. 

The note reads, “The Girl at Nong Samet.”

So here’s a toast to whatever you do to remain thankful throughout the year. And Happy Thanksgiving.