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How Gold Helped Cambodian Refugees Escape the War

It was 1974, and I was a young teenager, when I had a defining experience that I remember to this day.

I grew up in a little medieval town in France, and my parents were very involved in our community of about fifteen thousand people. When a small group of Cambodian refugees arrived in France, my parents immediately agreed to “adopt” a family named Huu.  

Adopting refugees meant helping them with their basic needs: find accommodation they could afford, a first job, clothes, and all the other necessities to survive.

We also welcomed the Huus into our home on a regular basis. It happened so many times that the kids from both families became like stepbrothers and sisters.

To me, the story of this refugee family who became our good friends has always been an example of human courage and determination.

The Backstory

The Huus were an educated, upper-middle-class family from Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital.

Than Huu, the father, was a well-respected entrepreneur with a large construction business. Originally from Vietnam, he served as an air force pilot before moving to Cambodia during the war of Indochina against the French. 

In Cambodia, he met his wife and started a family and a successful business. 

The family lived in a good neighborhood—until late 1973, when the Khmer Rouge took control of almost two-thirds of Cambodia, and Pol Pot attempted to take over the capital.

While the attempt was unsuccessful, the Khmer Rouge controlled most of the escape routes outside of the capital, and Phnom Penh was de facto under siege.

This was the time when Mr. Huu realized that he had to get his family out of the country.

Thanks to his construction business, he had strong contacts in Phnom Penh’s political circles. With their help, he managed to get his four kids and wife to Thailand in an escape disguised as a short trip.

His family was allowed to leave on the condition that he would stay in the country until they returned.

His wife Buangmali and his children had to leave with small travel bags that were supposedly meant for a short vacation. Mr. Huu therefore made sure his family carried with them gold jewelry and as many gold coins as they could hide in their luggage.

As soon as they arrived in Bangkok, Buangmali reached out to friends who helped them arrange a trip to Paris, France. At great cost, they obtained tourist visas for France and managed to use some of their gold to purchase tickets to Paris.

Upon arrival, they contacted their Cambodian connections in Paris who helped them seek refugee status. By the time we met our adopted family for the first time, it was May 1974. 

It had been six months since they left Cambodia, during which they had little contact with the father.

Welcoming Refugees

I remember the first day Mrs. Huu and her four children, two girls and two boys, came to our house.

Mrs. Huu spoke a little French; her children didn’t know a word. But despite the language barrier, my brothers and I quickly made friends with the Huu kids. While they had been fortunate to avoid the Khmer Rouge, leaving everything behind—both emotionally and financially—had taken its toll on them.

My mother collected many articles of clothing and essentials to help them settle in our little town of Senlis. My father managed to find a low-budget apartment for the family to move into quickly. He also found a job for Mrs. Huu as a maid in a local hotel. The children were soon enrolled in local schools for the next school year.

While the family was successfully settling in, their thoughts were with Mr. Huu, whose fate was hanging by a thread. By then, the situation in Cambodia had gotten worse, and there seemed to be no escape for him.

Then came the fall of Phnom Penh in 1975 and the ensuing Death March. Like most other residents, Mr. Huu was forced out of the city on a march across rural Cambodia. 

He survived due to luck and determination, but he witnessed many people die of exhaustion, hunger, and thirst. As his convoy slowly progressed northwest toward the border with Thailand, he saw numerous executions. 

Mr. Huu was forced to work long days in rice fields and to live in primitive conditions. As he later admitted, he survived only because he managed to be useful to a few Khmer commanders. He was occasionally mistreated and beaten, but was spared from execution because he could organize work in farms.

The Escape and Reunion

After six long months of marching and working in collective farms along the way, Mr. Huu ended up in a plantation only a few miles away from the Thai border. 

Determined to rejoin his family, he managed to escape one night and crossed the border undetected by the enemy. Once in Thailand, he still had to walk for days to get away from the militarized war zone and seek refuge.

He eventually entered a Red Cross refugee camp. Then, in early 1976, he was exiled to France to reunite with his family.

I still remember the day when my family accompanied Mrs. Huu and her children to meet Mr. Huu at the Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris.

My parents hosted a small reunion party for the family. Mr. Huu showed clear signs of the suffering he had endured throughout this time. His family could not believe how much weight he had lost.

With the help of my father, he quickly found a job in town. Two years later, he got an opportunity to work as an accountant at the Palace of Versailles, and the family moved closer to his work. His wife was also hired as cashier at the palace’s souvenir shop.

Expect the Best, Prepare for the Worst

From that point on, our families met once or twice a year. In the early 1980s, I moved to the United States and lost contact with the Huu family, but my parents see them occasionally to this day.

Ever since the reunion, the Huu family has led a happy and successful life in France. By the late 1980s, Mr. Huu had become a successful export sales executive for a French multinational and was in charge of all their Asian businesses. His children attended prestigious French universities, and based on what my mother tells me, they all have successful careers.

While the Huu family exhibited an exceptional amount of resilience and determination, it is undeniable that the family’s gold holdings played a small but vital role in their escape and new life in France. 

I have always been inspired by their optimism and work ethic. I’ve never heard them complain about their bad luck or the horrors they experienced. 

I hope that you never go through anything like that. But as the saying goes: Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.

In a financial context, the takeaway here is that anything can happen. Black swans, political fallouts, wars—you can’t rule out anything. And in situations like these, no asset class can protect your wealth better than gold.

Governments can’t devalue or control it. No official can claim it. You can carry it with you, and it’s universally accepted all around the world.

Allocating 5–10% of your liquid assets to this metal is a prudent and sensible move that will give you peace of mind—no matter what the future holds.

 

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