WARRNAMBOOL baker Lee Chhor has no memories of fleeing Cambodia 32 years ago.
He left his family’s village in Krong Battambang swaddled on his mother’s back with nothing but his parents and his three year-old brother.
He was just six months old at the time. The year was 1985 and Lee and his family were escaping Pol Pot’s rule in search of a better life.
The young Cambodian family walked more than 500 kilometres to Song Be, Binh Phuoc in Vietnam where they found safety in a Red Cross refugee camp.
Lee, now 32, admits that for years he was ignorant of the hardships his parents had faced during Pol Pot’s regime.
“My parents had to relocate because it was a dangerous time,” he said.
“It was a communist style of government. People were treated like slaves.”
“A big chunk of Cambodia’s history just disappeared for a while.”
Too young to understand displacement, Lee’s memories of the refugee camp are positive.
“I have memories but I’m not sure if it’s just something I made up or if it actually did happen,” he said.
“I do remember playing soccer with some of the kids that lived around our area, I was oblivious to what was happening around me so I was happy.”
Lee said the camp was home for three years while they “waited for the paperwork to go through”.
By 1989 the young family, who had now added a daughter to the clan, received the news they would be moving.
“After three years we got relocated to Melbourne,” Lee recalls.
The family-of-five joined Lee’s extended family in a small home in Noble Park.
“We all crammed into this one house,” he said.
“My parents both worked hard and saved money to buy a house in Dandenong.”
His parents’ commitment to work and providing a better future for their children is an attitude Lee refers to as “the immigrant mentality”.
“They worked heaps,” he said. “As much as they could. It’s the immigrant mentality, I think.
“You’ve come to a country where you have the opportunity to get ahead in life. I think they saw that and went all out for it.”
Lee said both his parents worked hard while providing a positive childhood.
“We were thankful that mum decided to work from home,” he said.
“She sewed clothes for people so she was able to stay with us while dad was working his night shifts.”
By the time he began schooling, Lee said his age helped him integrate into his new country.
“I didn’t speak any English,” he said. “But I remember making friends quite easily, as kids do.
“It’s like you’re playing in the sand-box and this kid says ‘hey you’re playing with that shovel and we’re best friends now’.”
After 11 years in Melbourne, Lee’s parents decided to move to Warrnambool.
“Dad had been looking at the bakery here and thought it was a great opportunity,” he said.
Lee’s parents purchased Baker’s Paradise on Mortlake Road.
An adult himself by this time, Lee said he was reluctant to leave his city friends behind.
It was Warrnambool’s welcoming attitude, however, that cemented his decision.
“Growing up in Melbourne you might not know your neighbours,” he said.
“In Warrnambool I feel there is a sense of community.
“They want to know you. They want to know where you’re from and they take the time to say hello to you, even when you’re walking your dog down the street.
“That was a big change for me.
“I wasn’t used to that.”
Aside from its people, Lee said the natural beauty of the south-west had won his heart.
He often spends his weekends exploring the region.
“The people, the ocean, the farmlands. A lot of things that are hidden that once you find, the beauty sticks to you,” he said.
“I fell in love with Warrnambool, I guess.”
Lee is hoping to pursue a career in the automotive industry.
“Another opportunity for me to try,” he said.
“I have always loved motor bikes, riding them and working on them.”
Motorbikes and photography are two of Lee’s passions.
He is currently restoring his own 1980s Honda CM250 vintage motorcycle.
“One of my dreams is to ride my bike from here to Queensland,” he said.
“And take photos on the way.”
His reflections on his family’s resilience when starting in a new country is something Lee feels very proud of.
After almost 12 years in Warrnambool, Lee also has advice for new migrants making the move to the seaside city.
“If you want to make friends, decide on a hobby or interest that you have and meet friends through that interest,” he said.
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