In A Refugee’s American Dream: From the Killing Fields of Cambodia to the U.S. Secret Service, Leth Oun shares hard memories of his childhood in Cambodia where his father was executed by the Khmer Rouge and he and his surviving family were enslaved in the Killing Fields for almost four years.
Following the fall of Pol Pot’s regime, Oun survived a year of homelessness then nearly four years in refugee camps. Arriving in America, seventeen and penniless, Oun struggled, washing dishes at a Chinese restaurant for $3.15 an hour. He persevered, graduating from the Community College of Philadelphia and Widener University and then completing thousands of hours of training to pursue a career in the Secret Service.
While on President Obama’s protection team, he returns to Cambodia after thirty-two years, reunites with family, and bonds with Reik, the Secret Service dog he handles. Through his most difficult moment, Oun displays truly inspiring resilience that ultimately leads to great achievements.
Joe Samuel “Sam” Starnes has published three critically acclaimed novels, including Fall Line in 2011, which was included in the Atlanta Journal- Constitution’s “Best of the South” list. His most recent novel, Red Dirt: A Tennis Novel, was released in 2015. His first novel, Calling, was published in 2005 and reissued in 2014 as an e-book by Mysterious Press and Open Road Media. All three novels are highlighted in a critical essay in Twenty-First-Century Southern Writers: New Voices, New Perspectives, which was published by the University Press of Mississippi. He has had journalism appear in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and various magazines, as well as essays, short stories, and poems in literary journals. He holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Georgia, an MA in English from Rutgers University–Newark, and an MFA in creative nonfiction from Goucher College. For more about his work, visit www.joesamuelstarnes.com
Kirkus Reviews: “A Cambodian refugee to America reflects on his arduous journey to freedom and job as a Secret Service officer”
Philadelphia Inquirer: “From the Killing Fields to the Secret Service, via Philadelphia; A Cambodian refugee carves his American dream”
6ABC Philadelphia: “Widener alum’s new book shares story of survival from Cambodia Killing Fields to the Secret Service.”
KYW News Radio Philadelphia: “From No House to the White House”
VOA Khmer: Interview with Reasey Poch on Voice of America Khmer Service channel.
Free Library of Philadelphia: Watch a video or listen to a podcast of Leth’s reading and discussion.
North Philly Notes: “Why I revisited painful memories to write A Refugee’s American Dream”
So many are poor in Cambodia, particularly in rural areas. Many don’t have enough food to eat or fresh water to drink, and children lack educational opportunities. Instead of donating money to organizations, which have administrative costs, I prefer to give directly to those who need it so all the proceeds help. I work with my family in Cambodia who coordinate with Buddhist temples to disburse the money to assist those in poverty.
An older couple we learned about who were friends of my wife’s late father illustrate the extreme hardships some Cambodians face. The man is blind and his wife is deaf. They can’t work and have no one to support them. They also have a grandchild in their care. I’ve supported them by sending money to buy them bags of rice and noodles. As little as $30 goes a long way, buying a one-hundred-pound bag of rice.
Another project I’ve undertaken is to pay for wells in villages that need water. It costs about $250 for a hand-drawn well and about $1,000 for a well with an electric pump. We coordinate with Buddhist temples that help guide us to areas that need the most assistance.
I feel so fortunate that my family found comfortable lives here in America, and we want to share our good fortune with those in Cambodia who need help. I want to return the many favors and generosity that I have received by paying it forward to help those in my home country who are very poor. I would not be where I am without the support that helped me when I needed it. I hope that some of the children we help can go on to live their own dreams as I have been able to do.