Monique Sokhan can still clearly remember huddling in the stairwell of her building at night in Phnom Penh with neighbours. As a young girl she was terrified by the glare of the lights that preceded shelling and the sound of the explosions. She was six at the time and thanks to her parents' quick thinking, escaped relatively unscathed before the Khmer Rouge wreaked havoc in Cambodia. Her father, a philosophy professor and a strong patriot, was reluctant to leave Cambodia. But the day her sister's school narrowly missed being shelled, her mother's determination to try to leave the country was steeled. Their decision to flee was made amid the upheaval of the Khmer Rouge's rise to power in the mid-1970s. The execution, forced labour and starvation wrought on the country saw an estimated 1.7 million deaths, according to some estimates. Ms Sokhan recalled how during the turmoil she was told she was going to France with her father on holiday and the pair quickly fled. Thus began the journey of this refugee. Ms Sokhan, now head of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Hong Kong, reluctantly told her story to mark World Refugee Day today. The theme this year is hope, and that the world's millions of refugees must never give up. Perplexed by why her mother and sister could not join her when she left Cambodia, young Monique found herself waiting alone in a hotel room for weeks while her father wandered the streets of Paris seeking refugee status, a job and a way to bring the rest of the family to Paris. 'I was miserable,' she said. 'They sold everything and only had enough to buy tickets for me and my father. They decided I would go with my father because they thought my sister, who is older, would be more likely to survive if we had to flee for our lives. Those are the kinds of thoughts you have during war. 'My father, being a professor, would have been singled out and killed, but my father loved his country and did not want to leave. It is difficult to leave one's country ... you have your whole life there, your friends, your family.' World Refugee Day recognises the struggles, the courage and the strength of the thousands of refugees daily who, in the face of persecution, torture and violence, have to leave their homes and build new lives, often from scratch, in foreign lands. 'My father was a professor, but he eventually took a job as a clerk in an insurance company ... you cannot be demanding in such times, of course,' she said. Ms Sokhan's mother and sister joined them after six months of separation, being fortunate enough to have connections in the government. 'We were very lucky to have left at the time. The first time I realised what was happening in Cambodia was through letters we received several years later. My parents' brothers and sisters were killed. That was the first time I saw them crying. 'My mother lost her younger sister - she was the wife of a soldier and one night got taken by the Khmer Rouge and executed. My grandfather died of lack of food and disease. Sometimes we would feel so guilty about it.' Ms Sokhan continued to have nightmares that they would be bombed. For years the sound of a bulldozer tearing down buildings terrified her. It was only two years ago that Ms Sokhan came to Hong Kong and took up her role with the UNHCR. Her family remains in France. 'In school, I could not understand what they were saying, the food was different - and I would go barefoot in Cambodia and run around but in France I had to wear shoes,' she said, recalling the difficult years adjusting to life after Cambodia. 'I was horrified.' But Ms Sokhan said her family was lucky. In Hong Kong, asylum seekers and refugees don't have the right to work, cannot bring their families to join them until they have been resettled in another country and children are not automatically entitled to go to school, even though asylum claims can take months or years to settle. They often wind up destitute and desperate. The UNHCR says that, up to last month, there are 1,546 asylum seekers and 124 refugees in Hong Kong. An African refugee in Hong Kong, Edward, 33, is one of those waiting for resettlement in another country. He had to leave his wife and four sons to flee to Hong Kong after he caused trouble for the government in his home country by revealing election irregularities as a volunteer election observer. 'After we announced the illegal things that happened to the electoral board, the government started to persecute me ... they tried to destroy my business, sent me warning letters,' said Edward, whose real name and country of origin cannot be revealed. 'At a big demonstration in the capital, some police came to catch me ... I was arrested and tortured by the government. They beat me seriously and forced me to sign a waiver of my rights if I have any relation with members of the opposition party. 'I understood upon my release from prison that I couldn't stay here.' A friend arranged for passports and visas for him to come to Hong Kong and churches helped him get in touch with the UNHCR. Edward came to Hong Kong last July. Since he is a recognised refugee, he gets financial support from the UNHCR. His future hopes are to get a job in his new country and earn enough to bring his family to join him there. 'I love my country, I never planned on leaving but I was forced,' he said. 'I have to survive; had I stayed longer in my country, my life was in danger. Most of the people who were wanted like me were killed or jailed. 'Now I will have to start from zero in a new country and work hard so I can bring my family there.' Ms Sokhan said it was heart-wrenching to go back to one's country after such an experience. The first time she went back to Cambodia with her mother, decades after leaving, 'there's a very strange feeling'. 'You know when you long so much to go back to your country and you finally go there, it's a mixed feeling,' she said. 'You're happy to see the people you left behind but so sad and angry about those you lost. 'When my father went back many years later, after all the destruction and war, it was not the same country he loved. It did not exist any more. He did not like it.' But when Ms Sokhan returned to Cambodia after finishing degrees in law, human rights and other disciplines, she knew she had to stay and contribute. She took a job with the United Nations to help strengthen civil society, raise awareness of human rights and protect vulnerable people. From there, she got the job she really wanted and could relate to most - with the UNHCR. She found herself assigned as a 'roving protection officer' for the last Khmer Rouge-controlled camps in Thailand, responsible for protecting the very people who had killed her relatives, friends and family members so many years ago. 'These were people who had killed my family and friends, but when I saw them, I saw many children, women and men who seemed to me more victims than persecutors,' she said. 'They were under the grips of Khmer Rouge and said they had no choice but to follow them. If they did not follow, their kids, their families would have been killed. 'I could not judge them. You can't say what you would have done in the same situation. What they were doing was to protect their families.' After Thailand, Ms Sokhan had postings in Timor, Sudan, Mongolia and Bosnia before being sent to handle Hong Kong's refugee situation. 'What I would like to make people understand is that refugees are not criminals living at the expense of others - I was not a criminal,' Ms Sokhan said. 'There is a tendency to paint them as people who are undesirable and should stay in their own countries. 'My father did not want to leave,' Ms Sokhan said. 'It is such a traumatic decision to have to leave your country for good. I think if my father did not have a family or kids, he would not have left.' Ms Sokhan said Hong Kong people had to be made aware of the issue of refugees, such as Edward, as a subject that needed to be tackled. It came down to treating humanely and with respect those who had been forced to flee their homes, she said. 'Refugees are the true survivors - they have such strength, such courage, such hope.'