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.

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. Leth describes this effort below in a passage adapted from his book. 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.

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.