RCC alumna gives lecture on her experience during Vietnam War

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Updated: September 29, 2015| Written by Jackie Mora
Author and Riverside City College alumna Sotheary Ortego will give lecture
Photo Courtesy of RCC.edu

By: Jackie Mora

A 6-year-old girl born in Cambodia could never have predicted the atrocities of a brutal guerrilla warfare group who stole her human rights, massacred millions and forced her and her loved ones to endure to survive as their country was being destroyed.

That young girl was Sotheary Ortego, Riverside City College alumna and author of “Soulful Journey: Against All Odds.” The book is inspired by the courage of her family and other families devastated by the effects communism and genocide in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge reign from 1975 to 1979.

“You don’t belong to your family, you belong to the government,” said Ortego to portray the extreme disregard for human life and rights the Khmer Rouge held as truth.

Ortego’s life story boasts the bravery and tenacity it took her and her family to live through the terrors during the takeover, yet she humbly depicted what was once her reality.

She began by humorously thanking the crowd for taking the time to attend even though it was around lunch time and everyone was probably hungry. Her friends, family and mentor were among those who experienced the incredible retelling of her history.

“When I first look at you today, I see a face of hope, I see a face of dreams, a face of potential,” she said in her lecture delivered Sept. 22 at the RCC Digital Library. “What makes humans so resilient is despite all of the things that happen in the world we have many things going on but we still can be here.” said Ortego.

The event was organized by Estrella Romero, associate professor of communication studies, as part of  RCC’s Discovery Lecture Series. Participants in the lecture learned about Ortego’s extraordinary life and also of her ambitious creative process in writing the novel

“I didn’t know much about my own history because back then we weren’t allowed to go to school.”said Ortego

When children were 6 years of age or older, they were separated from their parents and put in labor camps. Intellectuals were murdered to keep the population uneducated and unquestioning.

Ortego’s family was sentenced to execution because both of her parents were teachers.

On the day of execution, they were scheduled to be murdered at 3 p.m., but for an unknown reason the killings were stopped at 1p.m. The family was then displaced and separated from each other and put into labor camps.

The Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in January of 1979 erupting a war which unintentionally saved the family from the camps under Khmer Rouge rule.

Ortego’s family escaped the aftermath of the war-torn country on foot and crossed the border to Thailand.

Her mother realizing that her family was starving and that there was no future for the children, decided it was time to go. Her father did not want to go, but then ultimately decided to join the family on their quest for a chance at a decent life.

The family made it to the United States and arrived in Riverside, California during 1982.

Denial of their human rights, which includes the right to be educated and to educate others, has only intensified the family’s desire for this fundamental truth.

During high school Ortego excelled and took the opportunity RCC offered to academically successful students to enroll in their summer school program. During that time her mother was attending night classes to earn her associate degree in Cosmetology.

Ortego continued taking classes at RCC until she graduated high school. She proceeded to the University of Southern California, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in Nursing. She is currently a registered nurse at Kaiser Permanente Riverside Medical Center.

“For whatever odd reason, we’ve been saved so many times and that’s why I’m here today.” said Ortego.

“Soulful Journey: Against All Odds” is due for release this Fall.

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