Jefferson, N.H. — SNOW? Yes, Dara Kong liked snow. ''My country, hot and rainy. This country, hot and cold. This is better,'' he says, flashing a shy smile. The fire in the wood stove hissed. Outside, darkness slipped over the New Hampshire mountains. Dara fiddled with a penny, his bare feet crossed neatly at the ankles.
''But what is Christmas? I said, 'What is that?' '' Twelve years old, 12,000 miles from his native Kampuchea (Cambodia), Dara Kong had not heard of the Christian holiday until arriving in the United States 10 months ago.
Now with his 10 brothers and sisters - eight of whom are also Kampuchean refugees - Dara is beginning to get into the swing of things. Already he likes turkey and roller-skating, and he is doing well in the sixth grade. He is also saving his weekly $5 allowance to buy a small, stuffed horse as a gift for his sister Jintana. ''I love my parents here,'' he says softly, gazing down at the coin. ''But I miss my country and my family. It's making me sad.''
Like Jintana and his brothers, Dara is one of some 116,000 Kampuchean refugees who have been admitted to the United States since 1980. Nine hundred of them are considered orphans - unaccompanied minors, according to the State Department. And every one has witnessed one of the worst instances of genocide in modern history.
Between 1970 and 1979, Kampuchea suffered the effects of three military onslaughts - bombing by the United States during the Vietnam war, a five-year reign of the violent Khmer Rouge, and, finally, invasion by the Vietnamese. In the end, anywhere from 500,000 to 3 million Cambodians were killed, and hundreds of thousands had fled to refugee camps.
Dara is one of those survivors. ''My mother dead, me not dead,'' is how he explains it, barely lifting his eyes from his hands. After living in three countries, including a refugee camp in Thailand and a resettlement program in Providence, R.I., Dara now lives here in rural New Hampshire. In this 18 th-century clapboard house with the 10 brothers and sisters and his foster parents, Peter and Shirley Pond, Dara is part of a bold and unique family experiment - the construction of new lives for these children of war.
''Dad, do you still want Mom to get hot dogs and ice cream?''
Soneat, one of the first Cambodian children to enter the US and now Dara's older brother, has answered the phone. ''Yes, sweetheart,'' calls out Peter Pond from the living room, turning back to the conversation at hand.
''I didn't know I would be bringing back any children when I first went over to develop the Thai Committee for Refugees,'' says Mr. Pond, a small man with a bold, forthright manner. As a 1960 graduate of Yale Divinity School who had long been active in establishing private relief organizations, he was one of the first civilian Americans to visit the Kampuchean refugee camps in Thailand. He is a Congregational minister who preferred international crises to tending a parish. He worked for months in the camps and spent a week in prison for interfering in a government plan to repatriate some of the refugees. His goal was to begin the first Kampuchean refugee foster-care program in the US.
That was nearly five years ago. Today, after much initial opposition from the United Nations and some international relief agencies, more than 1,000 children have left the Thai refugee camps for new lives with foster familes in the US, France, and Switzerland. Six hundred have come to America, and nine of them have come to live in Peter's own house.
''We say we can never be No. 1 parents, but our expectations from the first day have been high,'' he says when asked about his child-rearing philosophy. ''These kids have been terribly traumatized and come from vastly differing economic backgrounds. But we assume they are children of the Prince,'' he says. ''You can choose what that means - Buddha, Jesus Christ, or (Norodom) Sihanouk. But we say that God has called you for some calling. That is a major factor in how this family operates.''
By refusing to label them orphans - ''these are my children,'' he says, adding that each child is being formally adopted as he turns 18 - the Ponds go beyond the normal parental duties of feeding, clothing, and educating their household. One of their chief tasks, Peter says, is helping the children replace their feelings of fear and guilt at being the only survivors in their immediate families with feelings of trust and affection. Peter refers to the book of Isaiah. ''Out of the most despicable suffering comes hope,'' he says.
''Oh, at first there was lot of the 'Hello flied lice,' but that just faded, '' says Shirley Pond with a smile. A tall, rangy woman with an easy, unflappable manner, she is clearly in charge of the household. ''I'm the dispatcher,'' she says, plopping down on the couch after yet another trip to the grocery story. With Peter's job taking him out of town much of the week, she has assumed the day-to-day running of the household. ''She deserves more credit than she's given ,'' says one neighbor.
''We're really committed to each other,'' says Shirley, echoing her husband's sentiments. ''Oh, there were times when I wanted to close the door, but I felt that we just couldn't add another rejection. Some of them had already been in three or four foster families. How are they going to learn to trust?''
As the mother of a family that continues to grow (''I think we have room for one or two more,'' she says), Shirley admits that the logistics of a 13-member household have been a challenge. ''I stopped baking cookies, and I hide fruit in the bedroom,'' she says; ''it all goes too quickly if left in the kitchen. These children are survivors,'' she explains, adding that ''nobody ever asks if you want any.''
Family meetings are held regularly, as a way to resolve disputes and make decisions ranging from the temporary suspension of TV privileges to permitting a network news team to film their Thanksgiving celebration.
To make ends meet, both Peter and Shirley work - he as a consultant for the Lutheran Services Association and she as a high school guidance counselor. Their collective income totals $40,000, but their annual expenses (they are both supporting children from previous marriages) come to about $100,000. The federal government pays a monthly stipend for each child under 18, and Peter's father helps with some of the private school and college tuition payments. ''Beyond that, we scrape,'' says Shirley simply.A large photograph of a saffron-robed Cambodian monk looks down on the front hall littered with snowsuit jackets, running shoes, and soccer balls. An antique grandfather clock stands sentry. Under the sideboard in the dining room sit jumbo bags of dog chow and sacks of ''Thai House fragrant white rice.'' The sound of a cleaver and the smell of frying meat draw one into the kitchen and the heart of the Pond family. It could almost pass for any household full of teen-agers. Thy, 17, is practicing some karate moves. Peter is tending the steak. Soneat, 18, is stirring another supper dish, while Jintana, 20, sets the table. Rom, 16, pours drinks; Thorn, 20, whacks away at the chicken; Dara, in his terry-cloth bathrobe, is working on his English homework by the sputtering wood stove. Arn and Lakhana are away at boarding school, and Voeun is temporarily attending a job corps program in Vermont. But two of Peter's own children, Peter Jr. and Anna, are also here for dinner tonight. A flurry of school schedules are taped to the refrigerator door. Overhead, the chart of duties. Under each family member's name, a roster: ''Make breakfast, make supper, clean bathrooms, carry wood.'' Everyone does his own laundry and cleans up his shared bedroom. It is a rumpled but organized household.Dinner begins with grace, everyone holding hands. ''Thank you for food ,'' says Soneat, picking up his fork. ''Thank you,'' says Peter. Conversation ranges from a discussion of animals - ''Which is fastest, frog or cat?'' asks Thy, who tried to catch frogs for food while fleeing the Khmer Rouge across the border - to Peter's admonition that ''We have to practice some new muscles. We all have to hold Dara and tell him we love him. Dara won't let you. but he needs to know everybody loves him.'' Dara does not smile and looks only at his plate.It is just a flicker of a response, but it speaks volumes about the difficulties each child has faced in Kampuchea, in the refugee camps, and even here in New Hampshire. Shirley and Peter say it takes each child about two years before the defenses are completely down. And even then tempers can fray and tears flow. Each child has a different story to tell and a different way of dealing with the past.Arn still suffers from recurring nightmares. Thorn carries his adoption papers in his wallet. Rom is currently having some disciplinary problems at school. Jintana, the daughter of a murdered high-ranking military man, swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills her first year here. She says she thinks about her family often. ''It doesn't get any easier,'' she says quietly. It is these kinds of memories that the Ponds are collectively up against. Not one of them says it has been simple.''The magic wears off after a while,'' says Peter's son Peter, a freshman at a nearby college who calls the household a ''three-ring circus.'' ''During the first year, they are always ready to find a better deal,'' says Shirley. Some outsiders have suggested the Ponds have taken on too large a burden - that their financial resources are stretched too thin and the children pushed too hard and too fast. And there are always some who question the Americanization of Asian refugees.Patrick Kelly, the stocky, bearded principal of the White Mountains Regional High School where seven Cambodian children (five of which are the Ponds') attend school, says the few problems that do crop up occur largely because of cultural differences. ''It's hard for them to adjust to authoritarian figures again,'' he says. ''They also have to learn how to compete and question.'' But by far the biggest criticism stems from the amount of media attention the family has sought and achieved during their years together. Peter spends roughly one-third of the year in Thailand, struggling to process the remaining 800 or so refugee children there. Family outings to congressional hearings, Buddhist ceremonies, and Cambodian cultural affairs are frequent occurrences. Arn alone has been featured on evening newscasts and ABC's ''Nightline.'' He also traveled as an adviser to the recent Children of War tour of the US.''Peter carries a torch for his cause,'' says one observer, ''and I think the kids have dealt with (the media attention) well. But they don't want to be an exception.''While Peter says his frequent absences from his family ''hurt,'' he insists that ''for my children to speak and work on behalf of Cambodia, to intervene in a crisis, is good and responsible.'' ''Be quiet!'' someone yells as the evening news flickers on. The Ponds have gathered in their family room to watch themselves on TV. Thy tosses a football up and down. ''Reach out and touch someone,'' sings Soneat along with a commercial. Shirley holds Dara in her lap. Children sprawl on the worn furniture, but their attention is unshakable. ''Look, they live in fear,'' exclaims Soneat over some footage showing children in El Salvador.Soon it is the Ponds' turn. ''America's New Pilgrims'' is what their story has been called. As the familiar faces flicker on the screen, there are screams of excitement and embarrassment. ''Dad could be on the cover of GQ (Gentleman's Quarterly),'' someone cries. ''Shhhh,'' says another. Laughter continues to punctuate the news segment until a shot of Jintana, tears streaming down her face while talking about the death of her family, appears on the screen. In the room, Jintana begins to cry silently again.''It's all right, darling,'' says Peter, and he reaches out a hand to his daughter.Rom is settling in for an evening of TV. Everyone has been allowed a night off from homework to watch the movie ''The Ewok Adventure.'' The family is upstairs in one of the bedrooms except Rom and Soneat, who share the family room. During commercials, Rom talks about his past. ''I feel very lucky,'' he says about his year in New Hampshire, ''but I dream of my family. Still in front of my eyes I see my house in Phnom Penh.'' After Rom's family died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, his grandmother hid him in a box during house-to-house searches. He finally escaped by walking 100 miles to the Thai border, living on ''snakes and all kind of animal. I almost die three or four times,'' he says quietly. ''I'm a little kid but I have to act like a man.''In a moment, however, the sorrow seems to pass. Rom pulls an afghan over his shoulders and turns back to the television. Like his brothers he watches and mimics everything. A soft-drink ad flashes on the screen. Rom hums along with the jingle. ''Coke is it,'' he sings softly. And then a bit more vigorously, he adds his own assent, '' 'Coke is it.' Yeah!''