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“I chose to belong:” Entrepreneur shares extraordinary refugee journey from Cambodia to Canada

Peng-Sang Cau is photographed in her father-in law’s garden in Oakville, Ontario, Canada, on Tuesday July 21, 2020. © UNHCR/Chris Young

By Susan Pedwell

Although Peng-Sang Cau hasn’t been a refugee for 40 years, she still identifies as one.

“Being a refugee is always part of you,” she says. “It’s a feeling of being destabilized, of feeling unwanted. You never quite feel like you belong. But I chose to belong,” she states emphatically. “I wanted to move forward.”

And move forward she has – in leaps and bounds.

Peng was born in Cambodia, a few years before the Khmer Rouge seized power in 1975. Almost immediately, the genocide began, which resulted in up to two million deaths.

Her family lived in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh where Peng’s parents owned a prosperous bicycle-parts business. The family of 13 lived above the store, enjoying luxuries such as nannies, a maid and a chauffeur. Fearing the corruption of government, her parents sent their two eldest sons away to a private school in Taiwan.

Peng was five when the Khmer Rouge military invaded her street in tanks, shouting through megaphones: “Everyone must leave their home for three days. We must search everywhere for enemies. Leave now. Now!”

“That’s my first memory,” says Peng, adding that they were forced away for years — not three days.

The family was marched into the forest and relocated to a camp, where her father made a hut for his wife and nine children. In her father-in-law’s backyard she points to a tool shed. “It wasn’t any bigger than that,” she says, recalling the makeshift home.

They ate whatever Peng’s mother could find in the forest. In soups, her mother substituted snake for chicken. If the soup turned black she knew the snake was poisonous, and the family might not eat.

“Once, my younger brother and I caught a frog. We tried to cook it but couldn’t get a fire started, but we ate it anyway. Raw.”

Years later, an older sister recalled seeing Peng and her younger brother sitting on the ground with bloated stomachs, too weak to brush the flies away. “We were starving,” says Peng. But the family suffered something even worse than starvation.

Peng’s sister Pi was taken away when she was 13. “‘Taken away’ is a common phrase for people from Cambodia,” explains Peng, brushing tears from her eyes. “She was taken away, and we never saw or heard from her again.”

It’s too painful for Peng to imagine what may have happened to her sister, but the Khmer Rouge was conscripting young teens to commit mass executions in what have been called “the killing fields.”

As the family tried to escape, Peng remembers running across these fields.

“It was dark and bullets were flying,” she says, her voice cracking. “There were dead people everywhere, and I was being dragged by my older sister who was yelling, ‘Run! Run! Run!’”

Eventually, the family made it to a refugee camp in Thailand, where her youngest brother was born. In 1980, with the help of a cousin in Regina, the family gained refugee status and immigrated to Canada. Peng was 10.

Choosing to belong in her new home in Regina, Peng quickly learned English, the words of “O Canada” and later earned a commerce degree at Queen’s University. Then in 1995, Peng and three engineers in Kingston, Ont., founded Transformix in her basement.

As president and CEO, Peng sought financing from her sister Hung and brother Weng, who started the property development company Syndicau Development Inc. Also helping out were her brothers Heng and Hee who opened Ngoy Hoa Asian Foods in Regina.

After a tumultuous beginning, Transformix invented CNCAssembly, a game-changing technology that assembles parts, such as small medical devices, at incredible speeds. Company doors began swinging open across North America and around the world. Then, companies began knocking on Transformix’s door.

The company has provided a multitude of jobs for Canadians. “I’ve lost count of the number of employees we’ve had, but hundreds,” says Peng. And the business has contributed millions of dollars in taxes to the provincial and national treasuries.

Recently, Peng joined the UNHCR Canada Advisory Council, which seeks to raise awareness of UNHCR’s work through outreach to organizations, business leaders, and key decision makers in the corporate community. Their goal is to encourage those within these sectors to provide access to employment for refugees in Canada, and provide the financial means to help support displaced people globally.

“Being a refugee is heartbreaking,” she says. “I want to help.”

To learn more about our #IWasARefugee campaign, visit our website. To sign our #IAmAnAdvocate pledge, please click here.