In 1975, the Khmer Rouge, a communist guerrilla army, took control of Cambodia and began one of the deadliest genocides of the 20th century. Between 2 and 3 million men, women and children were summarily executed or died of starvation, untreated illness or exhaustion in the death communes known as the Killing Fields.
Thousands of desperate people sought shelter in dirty, crowded refugee camps across the border in Thailand. They included Bunya Ly and his wife Nhep Hang, who escaped the Killing Fields and made it to Kow Ee Darng. In that camp on Dec. 25, 1980, the first of their eight children, Chanda Ly, was born.
That child -- now the reigning Mrs. Alaska United America -- will compete in the national United America Pageant, June 19-22, in Austin, Texas.
"It's amazing to think about it," Ly said. "A refugee girl representing Alaska. I tell people my story is, 'a poor girl goes from the Killing Fields to the Klondike.'"
According to its website, the United America Pageant has been around for about 10 years. It resembles the better-known Miss America and Miss USA competitions, but has a more diverse feel. Photos of previous winners show a wide range of ethnicities and the event features a number of categories. There are married and unmarried divisions, for example, a separate teen contest and awards for women who don't fit the standard model mold -- those shorter or stouter than average. There's a "classic" division for women 40 and over.
"We just truly appreciate all types of women," said Kristina Rowe, the pageant's social media director. "We do welcome contestants of all ages, sizes and walks of life."
The 5-foot-5-inch Ly is short enough to take the stage as a petite, but she's going for the big title: Mrs. United America.
As a working Alaskan, Ly is the head cake decorator at Carrs. As Mrs. Alaska, she's spent much of the past year participating in community events and fundraisers. Her appearance at Anchorage's Cambodian New Year Celebration in April was a particularly special occasion for her.
But her passion involves raising money for the children of her hereditary village.
Prek Ta Kov commune is located on the east bank of the Mekong River across from Phnom Penh. Her mother's family home is about a yard from the water.
"Each week, I try to send the children something," Ly said. "Rice, noodles, school supplies, clothes -- and candy. I try to make them happy. I know what they're going through."
The Khmer Rouge was pushed back into the jungle in 1979 by another communist army, that of Vietnam, which had become fed up with its neighbor's cross-border attacks. But although out of power, the Khmer Rouge remained powerful enough to terrorize the defenseless, including the refugees in Thailand.
"We had to move from camp to camp," Ly said. "I remember the artillery, the bombs, running and running. I thought this was normal. This was life."
Over the course of 12 years, the family lived in five different camps. Rations of rice were delivered every two weeks, she said. Sometimes there would be dried fish or vegetables. Sometimes the family ran through its rations before the next supplies arrived.
Water was also trucked in, about a bucket per person per week, she said. It was impossible to plan and forbidden to plant anything. There were no sanitary facilities, no electricity and, worst of all, no sense that life would ever get better.
"When you are a refugee you have no land, no home, nothing," Ly said. "When you are a refugee you have no future."
The camp was surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by Thai soldiers who kept the refugees from leaving. The guards were strict and sometimes abusive.
"When I was very young, there was a pretty young girl, my neighbor," Ly said, losing her smile at the memory. "One day four or five soldiers came and just took her away. They had AK-47s. The husband and father couldn't do anything. They were defenseless. I saw this happen three times."
It took 10 years after the Vietnam incursion before the Khmer Rouge dispersed and its leaders were taken prisoner. The Ly family moved back to the relative safety, but stark poverty, of Prek Ta Kov village.
Ly met her future husband, Robert Ward, an Army veteran working for the United Nations, in 1996. They were married the following year. (Following the Cambodian custom, Ly has not taken her husband's last name.) In 1998, they moved to Anchorage, where Ward hoped for better job opportunities. He now works for the Municipality of Anchorage Traffic Department. Ly became a U.S. citizen in 2000. The couple has two children, Jessica and Benjamin.
But the 350 children of her home village are never far from Ly's mind or endeavors. She eagerly solicits donations. "I can't do it all myself," she said. She sells cookies to raise extra money. She sends her care packages and "cookie money" to a sister who lives in the village, Sokha Ly, who distributes it.
"I try to help the older people, too," Ly said. "I'm building a house for a family with six children. Well, not really a house. More like a nice shack."
She showed a photo of a metal roof on bare poles awaiting walls. It's a humble shelter, alright. But Ly pointed out that the family had previously been living under a tree.
Ly said her efforts wouldn't be possible without the help of other Anchorage residents. "I don't think anyone on Earth is as generous as Americans," she said. "Even in the camps, I knew that the food was coming from Americans."
She said she was looking forward to the Austin competition. "But, win or lose, I will keep going after my cause, my village."
"I don't want anyone to feel sorry for me," she said. "Yes, I had hard times. But look at what's happening now. Because of what happened to me, I'm able to help these poor people.
"And where else could a poor girl from Cambodia become Mrs. Alaska? I'm living the American dream!"
Reach Mike Dunham at email@example.com or 257-4332.
By MIKE DUNHAM