Cambodian Genocide Survivor Lives in Denver, Now Builds Playgrounds (Part II)

Helena Ny, Helena Ny, Cambodian genocide survivor, entrepreneur & playground builder

Helena Ny, Cambodian genocide survivor, entrepreneur & playground builder

Helena Ny was a year old when Pol Pot’s military began executing and starving what would be over two million Cambodians. Helena would spend the early part of her life being passed between families and surviving unspeakable tragedies. Years after the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot’s reign of terror in Cambodia ended, Helena received news of something she had always known in her heart — her father was alive and wanted her to come be with him in the United States.

As Helena described in Part I of this story, at the age of 12 she escaped Cambodia by foot to Thailand. After a year of waiting in Thailand she arrived in the United States in 1987 – only to learn something Helena never knew – her father had a new family. The strain this put on Helena and her father’s relationship was substantial. When Helena’s father [Bun Heng Ny] died decades later she returned to Cambodia to give children what she never had – a chance to play.

Here is a bit of her story.

Were you ever able to reconcile your feelings with your father?

No, he kept sending me away. My fathered died in 2009.

He sent you away?

He sent me to Atlanta to be with my aunts, uncles and cousins, so I could get a good education. My aunts wanted to mold me into a doctor or a lawyer. I am grateful for the importance they put on education. They would make me study all the time.

I think my father could not face me because I looked so much like my mother. My father and mother had a very romantic relationship. They were very much in love. When my mother was dying she told my remaining male cousin to find my father and tell him to bring me to him. Because my father loved her so much he did everything in his power to bring a piece of her to him.

He too had a dream of what kind of daughter I would be. I was not that daughter. I had a lot of questions and comments and I spoke up. I was not obedient.  Even though I was small I knew what was right and wrong, so I would speak up when I did not getting treated right. I was a difficult child to raise.

He spanked me pretty hard one night. He had always told me not to slam the doors. One night I asked him about my mother and he would not answer me. I went to my room and after I entered, the door got slammed because the window was open. He thought I had slammed the door and spanked me. The next day I went to school and told my gym teacher about it and they called social services. That was when he got very angry with me and sent me to Atlanta to live with my aunt.

How was Atlanta?

Being with my aunts and uncle in Atlanta gave me a strong foundation in education. Since I was a very difficult child to raise I only stayed with them a couple of more years. When I was 17 and a half I asked to move out, I told them how grateful I was but felt it was time for me to go and find my own destiny. I did not know how, but I knew I had to try. I moved back to California in hope to be near my father but at the same time he was moving to Atlanta. That didn’t stop me from wanting to go my own way, I finished High school with a 3.5 GPA while working at Chuck E Cheese and Taco bell. I never got to play with my high school friends. While they have their parents to go home to I rented a room from a woman and slept on bunk beds with many of her children. In my years of trying to survived, I always knew nothing was permanent. No matter how hard life gets; I knew nothing lasts forever.

I want the world to know that no matter what you are going through if it feels good enjoy every moment of it and if it hurts know that it will not last forever.  Ever since I was a child I have this knowing about my emotions. I know tomorrow will come and I get to start all over again. It’s like when it rains I wouldn’t be mad at the rain for falling on me just because I don’t want to get wet. I know the rain will eventually stop when its time. This is the same as with emotions, I let them run through me.

Have you sought any counseling to help process your childhood?

I remember my father put me in counseling and I remember speaking to the counselor. He was basically giving me advice to listen to my father. They couldn’t figure out how to counsel me. I don’t think they knew a lot about dealing with the kind of trauma I experienced at that time. I know I am pretty screwed up on some levels, but the survival skills I have are pretty strong. There was nothing and no one that would get in my way of surviving.

I was able to be kind when I needed to and I was able to defend myself when I needed to. I was never raped as other girls were at the time in Cambodia.

Have you done anything to try and heal from your childhood?

From the time I left [Atlanta] to find my own destiny, I spent many years continuing my education. I knew how important it was for me to communicate well in this world. I never quit going to school. My first goal was to learn self-reliance and the second was to figure out what to do with life that would make me happy. In my twenties I worked hard and found my passion with creativity. I became a hairdresser; with this passion my way of surviving in the world started to become effortless.

When I turned 30 that was when I got serious with my emotional healing. When I met with therapists they would shake their head. They were in awe with my survival skills. I do not know how to tell you, but I feel like I was helping them more than they were helping me. I went into spirituality pretty deep. I always had it, but I hid it because it was not accepted. In my twenties I partied and drank and did everything I could to fit with the norm because I felt abnormal. When I was 30 I wanted to change. I studied quantum physics, energy healing, EFT and I did inner child healing with the Mile Hi Church in Denver. I believe we are equipped to heal ourselves.

In 2007 I became a US citizen and I started to ask the universe for guidance. I knew I was having patterns that I kept falling in that I did not like, but I could not get out of them. I knew there was a pattern in my synapse that needed to work. I wanted to be sent a person, anything that would help me shift it. I was introduced to a bio feedback device call Vo-Cal and the Vortex. It was invented by Calvin Young. It is used to help Post Traumatic Stress. It uses your voice and helps map out trauma in your body and identifies patterns we are repeating. I bought it when I was in college. I saved money for school and I quit school and bought these devices and I worked on myself.

Tell me about your decision to go back to Cambodia.

Helena at Work

Helena at Work

I had so much fear with Cambodia, I thought there was no way I was ever going back there, but after my father passed away I decided to go back.

I knew it was up to us as the victims to become warriors or to become the victims. [Crying]  Two or three months after my father died I went to Cambodia. When he was alive I did not want to disrespect him as he went through so much to bring me here. Cambodia was out of the question when he was alive. When he passed away I needed to go back and face the guilt of abandoning my adopted mother.  When I arrived the people who helped me leave Cambodia were still there and they helped me find everyone.

What was Cambodia like when you went back?

I had so much fear inside of me. I would look at people and just start to cry. They would cry. I would cry. It was pretty brutal. I was so depressed when I came back from that trip. I was depressed for months. The second time I went back was different. I had already been through that. The first time there were so many feelings of guilt. Why did I survive? Why did I make it out? Why am I not doing more to help them? I was always beating myself up. I still do.

What do you think all those tears were about?

They were emotional tears. I don’t think they were just mine. I think they were collective. Sometimes I am not only releasing it for myself but people and places around me. I have to be aware that it is just an emotion. The first three days I was there I was trembling the whole time. I did not want anyone to know how much fear I had. I had so much fear running through my body.

How is Cambodia different from when you left?

I think they are still hurting each other. It is different now because there is a lot more freedom. The world is visiting Cambodia. It is liberated. Everyone has cell phones. You go into the countryside and no one has food, but they all have cell phones. It is different now because a lot of the Western world is pouring in there. I had never seen divorce and now there are tons of divorces.

I know that Cambodia needs a lot of healing. The whole country needs a lot of emotional healing. They have a lot of scars. Even though they have a lot of opportunities and freedoms there is a lot of emotional healing that is still needed. You can see it in their eyes. They love to learn. I think it comes from being suppressed for so long. They very much want to know what is outside. They love, love money, but who doesn’t?

Overall how do you feel Cambodia is doing now?

The people who are there right now are so grateful, because the government stopped killing them but the corruption is still there. There are not mass killings so for that they think the government is amazing, but they still do not have any rights. The Prime Minister was a part of Pol Pot’s regime and he was put into power by the Vietnamese. I feel like he is the puppet to the true ruler and the true ruler is the Vietnamese.

How did it come to be that you were building playgrounds in Cambodia?

I knew that the reason I was alive was because I had a bigger purpose and as a child I never got to play.

With my own money I have been building playgrounds at schools in Cambodia. As a kid I played with sticks and clay. That was how we wrote in school also – with clay on pieces of wood.  Then I come to America and I have pens and paper everywhere. I wanted Cambodian kids to have those things. I built a playground where I was found as a child.  You would not believe the play that comes out of kids on that playground. They do not want to go home, to clean or to eat. I built it at a school and the school has to take the slide away and put a chain around the merry go round, so they do not sneak in at night and so they go home to eat. It makes me feel so grateful that I made a little piece on earth a happier place and now I am a little addicted to building more playgrounds to kids.

In the United States you turn on water and it comes out of the faucet. I used to have to walk miles and miles for it. In the United States we can close the door on the bathroom which is inside our houses. We have toilet paper and have lights.

Death has faced me so many times and I haven’t succumbed to it. I must have a bigger purpose.

How do you think the people in Cambodia reconcile living amongst those who did so much killing?

That is an interesting question. Everyone was a victim — those who were killing and those who were killed. All were victims. Forgiveness has been a lot of my healing. I feel like a lot of my purpose is to send forgiveness because you do not know who is who and who did what. There were times where I would get angry, but I knew I was hurting myself and not them. I love the quote from Einstein, ‘You can’t solve a problem with the same mind that created it.’

Most of the war and the killings were done through anger and you can’t be angry with them and expect to solve anything. You need to learn to forgive and love where they are and who they are. I do not believe any soul is a bad soul. It is just bad choices we learned or bad situations which teach souls to hurt other souls.

What will you do next?

I feel like there is so much I have to do in order to give back to life. I have created a short documentary about my childhood on what I went through. My intention with it is to educate the world about what has happened in Cambodia and to help bring awareness and forgiveness in hope to find a better solution for the future of Cambodia and the [Cambodian] people. I hope to reach as many of my Cambodian people who have gone through the nightmare under the Pol Pot Regime to [help them] heal and forgive their past and so that we may be an inspiration for healing to those that are still hurting.

Thoughts from Helena

Thoughts from Helena

I am in the process of creating a non-profit project to where I am able to build [more] playgrounds and promote education to children in Cambodia. I have so many passions and ideas on what I can do to help, but this is what I am focusing on right now. My passion in life is learning. Education has freed my mind from having a victim’s consciousness. I want to convey to kids that learning can be fun, liberating and able to give them freedom to make and create better choices for their future.

On the spiritual part of my human being I feel like I need to step out of the way in order to let life unfold. Part of me feels like I am a frequency holder with my being. One of my spiritual teachers once told me, ‘We are all like a candle and for a candle to light other candles first has to be lit itself.’

My spiritual passion has always been going inward to find my own light. When you are lit everyone around you gets light from your light. I do not feel a need to save the world. I want to add my love and light to it. I don’t think the world needs to be saved. I think the universe is brilliant, and it knows exactly what it is doing. Our job is to first take care of ourselves, to be healthy and happy inside and out with who we are and where we are right now, the more we are in this state the more we are doing our part to love the world.

Read Part I to hear about Helena journey in surviving unspeakable tragedies, how her father found her and escaping Cambodia.


To see Helena’s documentary on her visit to Cambodia see: or learn more about Helena:


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