Her father was sentenced to be executed during the Cambodian genocide but in an unexpected twist of fate, his life was spared. For the first time, South Auckland doctor Rebecca Ly shares her family’s deeply moving story of courage and kindness.

Through a suburban Flat Bush door, an infectious smile warms the room.

A young five-foot tall doctor offers a cup of Chinese Jasmine tea and directs us toward an immaculately-kept family living room.

A captivating black and gold print of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat temple hangs directly above the leather couch where Rebecca Ly sits.

Displayed on one side of the print are her and her younger sister’s University of Otago graduation certificates – both a bachelor of medicine and surgery.

On the other side are two photos of them receiving their awards at their graduation ceremonies.

It’s clear both sisters are adored by proud parents.

Rebecca speaks calmly and eloquently like she is explaining a medical procedure to a patient.

She wants to share her family’s story to remind people how far a random act kindness can go and what it means to her to be a doctor in South Auckland.

When the pigs gave birth, Rebecca’s grandma would take her dad and the piglets to visit poor rural villages.

Rebecca and her dad Leang at her graduation. Photo / Supplied
Rebecca and her dad Leang at her graduation. Photo / Supplied

She would gift each family two piglets and say “you can keep one but you must raise the other one so I can come back and buy it off you.”

More than a decade later, the genocidal regime of the Khmer Rouge began to unfold.

“People were evacuated from their homes and made to live in famine in the jungle.

“If they weren’t killed, they were subjected to many atrocities, not limited to starvation and forced labour.”

Without a quiver in her voice, the 27-year-old explains that her dad, who was only a teenager at the time, witnessed the death of many family members including his mother, father, sister, aunties, uncles and cousins, who all died of starvation.

“People were being mass evacuated from the cities.

“The idea was to live in year zero so nobody had any means, they were just forced to live in these labour camps so they didn’t have anything and had very little food, just made to work if they weren’t forced to work.”

Leang made the decision to escape in the hope of finding a better life.

He was caught near the border, imprisoned, and sentenced for execution.

The night before his killing, the prison guard on duty recognised her dad from when he was a boy.

It turned out the prison guard was from one of the families who were given a piglet from her grandma.

Unexpectedly, the prison guard decided to spare her father’s life, letting him walk free and turning a blind eye.

To this day, the Ly family don’t know what happened to the prison guard and if he suffered any repercussions for his action.

“My dad says he used the moon and the stars to guide him towards Thailand where he reached a refugee camp.

“A few months later he was taken to New Zealand where he met my mum, who was also a refugee from Cambodia but escaped before the genocide, and they started a life here together.

As a teenager growing up in South Auckland, Rebecca struggled to understand who she was and where she fitted in.

That all changed when one night her father decided to tell her and her sister the story of how his mother saved his life.

“It suddenly made me realise that I am alive because of my grandmother’s actions. To think that her kindness was powerful enough to inspire kindness in someone who was supposed to kill people really resonated with me.”

Growing up, Rebecca said she didn’t think having parents who were refugees was unusual because she naively thought all Asian families were refugees.

Rebecca is training to be a GP to make a difference, like her grandmother did. Photo / Sylvie Whinray
Rebecca is training to be a GP to make a difference, like her grandmother did. Photo / Sylvie Whinray

“I didn’t know in that respect that I was a minority until I went to uni because when I went to school a couple of my friends’ parents were also Cambodian refugees so all the Asian friends I had were refugees and that was normal to me.”

She said hearing her family’s story gave her a sense of identity and belonging.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life but I knew I wanted to live my life in a way that honoured her memory.”

Rebecca completed her medical degree at the University of Otago’s medical school before spending three years as a junior doctor at Middlemore Hospital.

Now, she’s training to be a GP at Clendon Family Health Centre.

She said the most rewarding experience was when she was a trainee intern at the Māngere Refugee Resettlement Centre.

“I got to collect refugees from the airport gate and one particular moment that stood out was when I collected this one family and they just rushed out of the van to be reunited with their other family members.

Rebecca shares her family's story from their home in Flat Bush. Photo / Sylvie Whinray
Rebecca shares her family’s story from their home in Flat Bush. Photo / Sylvie Whinray

“That was a really emotional moment for me because it made me think about my own family and what it was like for them to come to New Zealand.

“To think that I was now there but on the other side of the process because of everything my father and grandmother went through was a full circle moment.”

For the first time in the interview, Rebecca’s voice begins to tremble and subtle tears exit her eyes when she thinks about what she would say to her grandma if she was here.

“I would say thank you for everything grandma and I hope that she would be proud and hopefully that everything she has been through wasn’t for nothing.”