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The Unlikely Marriage at the Heart of Phnom Penh Cambodian Restaurant 

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Photo courtesy of Phnom Penh

Mono Bun can often be found at the North Olmsted location of Phnom Penh. His wife, Naveth Salay, is usually cooking up one of the restaurant's 100 items. Along with the rest of the family, they own and operate two locations of the Cambodian restaurant, this one and the one in Ohio City.

Bun and Salay conform perfectly to the American image of the hard-working immigrant restaurant owners. "They work 12 hours a day," Jeanette, their daughter, tells me. "They go to Sam's Club for supplies on their days off." Together, they've been doing this for nearly 20 years.

"They like [each other] a lot," Jeanette says.

It might be surprising to learn that their relationship didn't spring from a romantic encounter or even from a union arranged by their families.

It came from the Khmer Rouge.

In 1975, Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge army took Phnom Penh. They began a military evacuation of city dwellers to the countryside, where they worked in forced agrarian labor camps. Estimates show as many as two million Cambodians — a quarter of the country's population — were murdered under Pol Pot's four-year regime.

Cleveland author Luong Ung's 2000 memoir, First They Killed My Father, along with the recently released film adaptation, have helped bring stories of the killing fields to the West. (Ung is, according to Jeanette, a huge fan of their restaurant.) What is less known are the forced marriages Pol Pot imposed on the Cambodian people.

The stated reason for this was to increase Cambodia's population, but the motives were more sinister, explains Jeanette. "They wanted couples to have kids to be Khmer Rouge soldiers."

Salay was from the city, the kind of cosmopolitan family (colonial French ancestry, Catholic) that Pol Pot hated. Bun was a Buddhist from the countryside. By the time Khmer Rouge forces paired them, Salay had turned down two other proposed husbands. To refuse the third would have meant her death.

After the collapse of the Khmer Rouge, it's hard to imagine any of these forced couples staying together. Yet Bun and Salay did. They even convinced Bun's parents, who had chosen a woman they thought would make a more suitable wife, that their union was going to last. Together, they traveled to Phnom Penh to search for Salay's surviving relatives. There, they settled and started a family.

The restaurant came into Bun and Salay's hands through what Jeanette describes as providence. Bun had moved to the U.S. to work as a cook in the hopes of bringing over his children. Salay had a relative in Ohio, so in 1999, the whole family moved to Cleveland to live with Jeanette's aunt. Jeanette found work in a Cambodian restaurant and heard the owner was looking to sell. Since then, Phnom Penh has been her family's restaurant.

"We've been letting fate guide us all this way," says Jeanette.

It's difficult to overstate the trauma and horror the Khmer Rouge inflicted on the Cambodian people. Jeanette describes her father as being "very upset" that Pol Pot died without facing a tribunal for his crimes. But when it comes to their marriage, he's the subject of a joke.

Jeanette tells me they like to tease each other. "If it weren't for Pol Pot, we wouldn't even be married!"

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