A Refugee’s American Dream

From the Killing Fields of Cambodia to the U.S. Secret Service

Published February 2023 by Temple University Press and released as an audiobook in October.

The Audio Publishers Association selected A Refugee’s American Dream as one of five finalists in the non-fiction category of the 2024 Audie Awards.

What reviewers are saying about A Refugee’s American Dream: From the Killing Fields of Cambodia to the U.S. Secret Service by Leth Oun with Joe Samuel Starnes

About the Book

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.

Leth Oun

A native of Cambodia who survived the Killing Fields, Leth Oun is a veteran U.S. Secret Service officer. He has protected presidents and vice presidents in four administrations in forty-nine states and more than a dozen countries. A political refugee who immigrated to Maryland in 1983, he became an American citizen in 1990. He is a graduate of the Community College of Philadelphia and Widener University. Before going to work for the federal government in 2000, he held numerous jobs that ranged from working as a bank teller to clerking at convenience stores to washing dishes for $3.15 an hour. He and his wife, Sophy, also a survivor of the Killing Fields, have been married since 1985 and have two grown children.

Joe Samuel Starnes

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

About the Writing Process

Leth and Sam met in 2011 at Widener University, where Sam was editor of the alumni magazine. Sam wrote a profile of Leth, and they stayed in touch and became friends. After Leth wrote a first draft of his life story that ran about 50,000 words, Sam began to work with Leth in 2017 to rewrite and expand the manuscript. Sam and Leth benefitted greatly from assistance from Leth’s former professor, Dr. Barbara Ryan, a professor emerita of sociology at Widener who consulted on and edited the manuscript.


Words Matter Bookstore, Pitman, NJ

October 5: 7 p.m. discussion and book signing at Words Matter bookstore, 52 South Broadway, Pitman, NJ, 07801.

Farley's Bookshop, New Hope, PA

October 6: 5 p.m. book signing at Farley's Bookshop, 44 S. Main St., New Hope, PA,18938.

Collingswood (NJ) Book Festival

October 7: Noon discussion and book signing at Songbird Karaoke, 790 Haddon Avenue, Collingswood, NJ, 08108.

Earlier Coverage

Leth Oun Cambodia Relief Fund

All proceeds due to Leth and Sam from the sale of A Refugee’s American Dream will go toward helping Cambodians in need. We are in the process of formalizing the Leth Oun Cambodia Relief Fund. If you wish to make a contribution, please send a message via our web site’s contact form.

March 1, 2024

Hello friends and supporters,

I was in Cambodia recently exploring opportunities for charitable donations to schools and other causes from the forthcoming proceeds of A Refugee’s American Dream: From the Killing Fields of Cambodia to the U.S. Secret Service. I made some direct donations to families in need with the help of my son, Timmy, pictured with me above. These gifts came from my pocket and the small audiobook advance I received. A small donation to Cambodians who have very little to eat can go a long way.

As I noted in my book, I prefer to give funds directly to those who need it instead of going through organizations that charge administrative fees. I have been delayed in the creation of a nonprofit structure that would allow supporters to make a donation online and get tax-deduction benefits. I appreciate those who have reached out to help me in my efforts to help the people in my home country.

Please stay tuned for more on the formal development of my charitable efforts on the web site. For those who would like to make a tax-deductible gift now to help those in Cambodia, consider donating to the organizations listed below:

Children’s Surgical Center in Phnom Penh (My coauthor, Joe Samuel Starnes, has given to this organization, donating half of his proceeds from the audiobook advance).

The Cambodian Children’s Fund
Room to Read (I traveled to Cambodia with Michelle Obama in 2015 to protect her while she supported this organization.)

Thank you for your interest and support!

Leth Oun