Climbing trees to avoid danger, looking for wild berries and roots to eat and fighting for life in the pursuit to feed one's family was a real life daily scenario for Hixson resident Yieng Yann, a former refugee that fled Cambodia and ended up in Hixson.
Her life story parallels that of fictional character Katniss Everdeen in the recently released movie "The Hunger Games." She said she went to see the movie and that the similarities are certainly there.
Yann was forced into an impoverished situation after the Vietnam War, when the border of Cambodia was weakened and the king left the country. Khmer Rouge soldiers took over Cambodia by killing Cambodian leaders and terrorizing civilians, forcing everyone into the jungle.
"My survival instinct kicked in," said Yann. "I climbed trees and looked for food. I looked for anything edible. I gathered leaves, roots, berries and mushrooms for my mom to give to the little ones. The wild animals became food."
Yann tells her story to local clubs to show that anyone can achieve survival if they put their mind to it. She recently spoke to the Northside Civitan Club in Hixson.
Looking back to her four years in the Cambodian jungle from 1975-1979, Yann said it is a miracle that her family survived and only lost her father in the process.
"I did what I could to survive," she said. "You had people looking to kill you if you disobey."
She said the soldiers separated everyone in the jungle into work camps. She said only those that worked were fed just enough to continue working each day. The Chinese, Vietnamese, Laotians and Thai refugees dug ditches, built roads and worked in rice fields.
In an effort to feed her family, Yann would sneak food to other camps. She said the conditions were terrible because the swamps people worked in were leech-infested. The people slept on dirt floors with woven leaves above for shelter from the rain.
"I would pray, look up to the sky and say, 'There must be a better world out there,'" said Yann.
After living in the jungle for some time, Yann heard a war would break out between the Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge soldiers, she said, so she decided to dig a hole and her family hid there with her for weeks.
"When the Vietnamese took over they wanted the Chinese to leave and pay our way out," said Yann, adding that her Uncle Chov gave her family gold jewelry to barter with. "They knew the Chinese had gold. Mom bartered what we had."
In 1979, Yann recalls walking from Cambodia to Thailand. She carried her sick brother David on her back. The family of seven made it to the border only to be transported back to Cambodia, said Yann. The refugees kept returning to the border, so the Thai people built a fence to pin them in at the border, she said. Yann dug a well for water. She dug another hole under the fence to go find food.
"Everything appeared to be a dream," said Yann. "I was brave at the Thailand camp."
Her family finally made it to the United States in 1979 with the help of the American Red Cross and AMG International. Her mother and siblings - Kiev, Linn, Patty, David and Peter - all came with her. Her Uncle Chov came in the '80s.
"We did not know freedom was possible," said Yann. "We lived in Hixson for six months with the Thrash family."
Yann said she was fluent in English within one year. She participated in spelling bees with her sister Linn.
The movie "The Girl Who Spelled Freedom" was made about her sister, who won the national spelling bee.
Yann is a graduate of Red Bank High School. She has a Bachelor's of Business Management from Middle Tennessee State University. She is a financial sales representative at Hixson's First Volunteer Bank. She went back to Cambodia in 2005 to visit and said she noticed the poverty all around.
"I think with everything that happened, I am meant to share my story," said Yann, adding that she is available for speaking engagements.
To request Yann to speak to a local civic club or organization, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.