ONE OF nine brothers and sisters, Nimol Tep, 40, survived the Khmer Rouge "killing fields" period in Cambodia in the late 1970s.
A decade later, she almost drowned when she tried to flee to Australia for a better future. She lived in Cambodia most of her life, then came to this country legally two years ago, living first in Connecticut before coming to Philly.
Then she, along with her 47-year-old roommate, were stabbed to death Wednesday in their South Philadelphia apartment, allegedly after an acquaintance of her roommate had an argument with the older woman over money.
Tep just happened to be in the apartment on 7th Street, near Jackson, at that time. She moved there just two months ago.
Yesterday, two of her brothers recalled a friendly, outgoing woman who liked Philadelphia because of its Cambodian community.
"The saddest thing," said brother Sunheang Tep, 52, as he stood at the doorway of his sister's second-floor apartment, atop a flight of gray-carpeted stairs, "was we went through the hard time together" of surviving the wrath of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.
"We didn't lose anyone," he said, speaking just a few feet from where stains of dry blood smeared the white tiles inside the apartment. "The saddest thing is we lost her right here."
"Pretty much everyone's sad about it, especially my parents back in Phnom Penh," the capital of Cambodia, where they live, said Sunheang, who flew into Philadelphia yesterday morning from his home in Rochester, N.Y. Since then, he has had to identify his sister's body and is now preparing for her funeral.
Sunheang and brother Sivhuot Tep, 49, who lives near Bristol, Conn., stopped inside Nimol's apartment yesterday "to collect memories of her," Sunheang said, as he showed a 2005 photo of his sister smiling at Niagara Falls.
The brothers said they did not know how their younger sister came to befriend her Philadelphia roommate, also a Cambodian immigrant. Police have not released the roommate's name because her next of kin has yet to be notified of her death.
In Connecticut, where Nimol lived with Sivhuot, his wife and children for nearly two years, she had worked in a factory assembling electrical supplies, her brothers said.
She then told them she was moving in with her friend in Philadelphia. She thought she could earn more money here, Sunheang said. Plus, Connecticut was too quiet.
"She said she liked it here because she had some friends," Sunheang said. "In the Connecticut suburbs, she had nobody to talk to. There were not a lot of Cambodians. Over here, everywhere you turn, there are Cambodian people" in this area of South Philadelphia, he said.
His sister spoke "very little English" and was learning the language.
Nimol wanted to earn more money so she could return to Cambodia in July to see their parents, Sunheang said. Then she planned to return to the States to move in with a younger sister near Los Angeles.
Police have said that Sambo Nou, 21, who lived a few blocks away from the women, has confessed to stabbing Nimol Tep and her roommate to death in their apartment about 5 to 5:30 p.m. Wednesday.
Nou, of Jackson Street near 4th, knew the older woman because she was a friend of his mother's. In the women's apartment, Nou argued with the older woman about a cell-phone bill and about borrowing some money, Homicide Sgt. Anthony McFadden has said. Then Nou allegedly stabbed the older woman, then allegedly stabbed Tep after she came out of the shower.
The two women worked at a clothing manufacturing company. Their bodies were discovered Thursday morning by a resident who lived above them after they failed to go outside to a van waiting to pick them up for work.
A middle child, Nimol Tep was born in an island village in the Koh Sotin district of Cambodia's Kampong Cham province. The family later moved to Phnom Penh, but didn't stay long.
In April 1975 the Communist Khmer Rouge captured the capital. Soon after, Khmer Rouge soldiers evacuated residents from cities, forcing people to live and work in the countryside.
From 1975 to 1979, a period termed the "killing fields," an estimated 1 to 2 million people died from starvation and disease or were brutally executed under Khmer Rouge dictator Pol Pot's rule.
There was "no school, no shop, no currency," Sunheang Tep said. "We live like prisoners, like third-class citizens." The Tep family was forced to leave Phnom Penh and lived in the countryside in Khampong Thom.
After Vietnam invaded Cambodia in late 1978, Sunheang Tep was able to flee the country by walking to the border and into Thailand, where he spent two years in a refugee camp. From there, he was the first in the family to come to the United States as a refugee.
As for Nimol and the rest of the family, they were able to move back to Phnom Penh around 1980, the brothers said.
Around the late 1980s, she and her younger sister, who now lives in California, tried to flee Cambodia for a better life in Australia.
"She wanted to get out of the country," said Sunheang. "It was still communist." They traveled in a "small boat. All I know was it was not a big commercial boat."
The boat sank in a storm. The sisters were rescued and taken to a refugee camp in Indonesia. After two years, they were sent back home to Phnom Penh.
Unmarried, Nimol "just stayed home in Phnom Penh and take care of our parents," Sunheang said. Then after 20 years of his having petitioned the U.S. government, it gave his sister permission to move here two years ago. *
Staff writer Christine Olley contributed to this article.