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Somaly Hay escaped political oppression - and now helps those left behind

Published 08/15/2012 12:00 AM

Somaly Hay & Co. is an unassuming storefront on Golden Street in New London. Step inside and you’ll quickly discover that it’s more than a cornucopia of jewel-toned colors, one-of-a-kind pieces and handmade crafts. It’s also a jewelry lover’s paradise.

With gold, silver, pearl and precious stone jewelry and layers upon layers of hand sewn silk and cotton dresses, pants and scarves, one could easily get lost in the store’s featured Cambodian collections, but the real treat is the shop’s owner, Somaly Hay.

Get her talking and her sincerity and sense of humor flow; traits that also shine in her deeply-rooted passion for helping others who are trying to help themselves. But underneath her vibrant personality is a scarred heart.

At 53, she is a survivor of one of the worst mass killings in the 20th century.

Her parents and nine of her 16 family members were killed during the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror in Cambodia from 1975-79. More than a million people are said to have died during that time.

In 1980, Hay, along with her husband and brother, managed to escape to a refugee camp on the border of her home country and Thailand. The trio, and Hay’s first of two daughters, waited for their acceptance into the United States as the country had granted asylum to the millions of Cambodians fleeing their country. She and her family have since been in Connecticut for 30 years, first living in New London and now in Waterford.

When asked about the regime, Hay’s normally bubbly voice grows soft. Her eyes dart away and it’s clear that horrific pain still pangs at her insides. She’ll mention her experiences in passing but says she’s worked hard to move on from the past and focus on the future.

She’s alive, she says. She made it to America and now she has the store of her dreams.

The memory of her mother’s insistence to leave the world a better place has prompted Hay to find ways that her store can give back.

“My mom gave me my strong path. You cannot move me. I’m so scared of evil, you kind of raise yourself by that theory, to always be nice,” she said.

Living by love, kindness and compassion, Hay credits her parents for her inner strength. They died in a Cambodian concentration camp when she was 16 years old. Separated from her parents when she was a teenager, Hay said the regime pushed her family and those where she lived out of the city and separated the large mass of people into groups of young and old, men and women. Children were separated from their families.

“You’re never together. People die one by one, they’ll kill you somehow, whether it’s starvation … but that’s a different story,” Hay said.

In her way of taking care of those living in the aftermath of an oppressive regime, one-third of the money made from all purchases is brought back to a village in Cambodia, where Hay works when she makes the trip once a year for two months.

“Cambodia is very rich in natural resources but the war made everyone poor,” she said. “We never needed anything from anyone before the war.”

The men and women she works with are responsible for almost all of the offerings in her store. The workers are mostly farmers or those with other jobs. They have families of their own and they need the extra work.

Providing food for their families is hard, Hay says, as she shakes her head.

“My store is my pride and joy. The buyers feed some people they don’t know. I owe my gratitude to this country because they gave me my second life, but I owe Cambodia because they are my blood,” she said. “If America didn’t bring me here I would have died.”

It costs roughly $20 to provide enough food for a day for the workers who polish the gemstones mined from Takeo Province and create the array of rings, earrings, necklaces and bracelets that can be found in her store. Takeo Province is a mine of champagne quartz, aquamarine and white topaz. There is also another mountain nearby where smoky quartz and sapphire are mined for the jewelry that appears in her shop.

When she makes the trip to her home-country in the winter months, she brings second-hand clothes and over- the-counter medicine to the workers.

While in Cambodia, she uses her arthritic hands to feel out “only the best” fabrics. She strings beads and sews clothing by hand, but it’s getting harder for her to stitch. To remedy the pain, she says, she keeps herself constantly busy.

Born in the country’s capital of Phnom Penh, Hay proudly recalls dancing in the royal palace and celebrating the queen’s birthday. Taking part in a raffle during the festivities, she won a pair of cotton pants and since then has developed a deep love for the soft, pillow-like material.

Nuzzling her face against a pair of pants in her store recently she said, “That’s my special memory, I love it.”

She constantly flutters around her shop, primping and organizing. Serving as a second home, her shop brings out her best.

The shop also serves as a classroom for Cambodian children living here. Families from as far away as Newington who have adopted Cambodian children, who come to visit Hay at her home in Waterford or at her store in New London for a half-day of immersion in singing, language and culture.

It’s not unusual for Hay to cook a certain food native to her country for the small group of students but on a recent Saturday, the group was piled into the back of her shop, munching chips and salsa.

“The noodles I cook at home are the same ones Somaly cooks but my kid won’t eat it,” one mother said, chuckling. “They can’t wait for her food and I’m sure they’re bummed out today because she didn’t cook.”

Barbara Lynch, of Norwich, adopted her daughter, Quinn Sinay, from Cambodia when she was three months old.

Lynch said her daughter is the only Cambodian child in their community and that she sometimes struggles to fit in. She’s been taking her daughter to Hay’s immersion culture classes for nine years.

“She’s full-on Cambodian. She talked in it all the time to us and it’s interesting to see how she talks and how different the language is,” Sinay said. “She’s definitely tough, but she is also really nice to us. She’s into teaching us about her culture and that’s why I’m here now.”

Sinay, a gymnast, said she enjoys learning Cambodian dances from Hay.

“There aren’t a lot of Cambodian people around and Somaly is able to expose the kids to the language, the dance, the food,” Lynch said.

Last Christmas, Sinay and her family visited Cambodia for the first time since she was adopted. Sinay said the Cambodian people were “very nice” and “content with what they had, even though it wasn’t that much.”

From Hay’s classes, she had a basic understanding of the language.

During the session, the five students worked on perfecting the written symbols of the Cambodian language and also were asked to sound out the words and learn their meanings. Hay is a good teacher, patient and kind, but stern. She wants her students to get it right and start speaking the language.

“You’ve been with me long enough. You should know how to read this,” she says to one student.

“You better be careful. Soon enough, you won’t be able to mold your mouth to speak Cambodian because you don’t practice,” she says to another.

While she teaches, she plots.

Plots ways she can improve, ways for her store to provide her and the workers she cares for with a means to an end. She works hard. Everything she has done in her life and with the opening of her store has been for one thing.

“My mother always told me, ‘don’t heavy the earth for nothing. Make your weight on this earth worth something.’”