American Dream/Cambodian Nightmare

A review. “A Refugee’s American Dream: From the Killing Fields of Cambodia to the U.S. Secret Service,” by Leth Oun with Joe Samuel Starnes

A Refugee's American Dream book cover

In 1976, Leth Oun is a 10-year-old working in what amounted to a slave labor camp in the Killing Fields of Cambodia. In 2012, Leth Oun is part of the uniformed Secret Service detail traveling with President Obama on his visit to Cambodia. This book is about everything that happened in between. The title refers to an American Dream, but the subtitle could well have been about a Cambodian nightmare

It is unfathomable that a young boy could come of age going through what this man did and not only survive, but eventually thrive. He spent almost four years in the Killing Fields. His days went like this. A guard with a rifle would shout to wake up and head out to the rice paddie. Standing in a few inches of  water, with leeches attaching themselves to his legs, he would plant rice seedlings or harvest the rice depending on the season. There would be a break for lunch which was always a watery rice soup in a dirty bowl. Then it was back to work until sundown when the armed guard would send him back exhausted to sleep on the ground. And, since he survived, that was a good day.

When the Vietnamese overran the Khmer Rouge, Leth and his mother found their way across the Thai border and into a series of refugee camp’s run by the U.N. In 1983 they were flown to America and settled in Maryland where they had a family connection. It is there where the Horacio Alger part of the story begins. It starts with Leth riding his bike through dangerous Washington traffic to work every shift he can get at a Tenleytown convenience store, a place where he would first encounter Secret Service agents who would come in for a sandwich or a coffee.

There is a lot more to the story of Leth’s life in America but for me the power of this book is the amazing first hand account of the Killing Fields. No historical tract or news report could come close to capturing the Khmer Rouge era the way this personal memoir does. Leth and his co-author Joe Samuel Starnes describe his experiences in such a straightforward manner that it almost belies the cruelty and degradation that was inflicted upon his family and so many of his countrymen.

There are heartwarming parts of the story as well. Despite being separated and shepherded about, his family continued to find and support each other. And there are well-meaning folks, in Cambodia, in Thailand and in America, who help make Leth’s story turn out the way it does.

As I read this book, I thought about the xenophobes in America who want to put a padlock on the border. I thought about the people responsible for the wave of Asian-American hatred that reared its ugly head. If only they could read or hear this story or meet this man. For me, Leth Oun is a lot more of what America is about than any of them are.

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4 Responses to American Dream/Cambodian Nightmare

  1. Sounds like a book that does need to be read by everyone right now. Especially as you say, those who fear refugees. Maggie

    Liked by 2 people

  2. retrosimba says:

    Wow! Thanks for an enlightening post. Thanks for putting the spotlight on this remarkable story. And thanks for the final paragraph.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I admire people who rise up from the worst situation in their life, in anyone’s life. Who wouldn’t?


  4. Donna Janke says:

    Sounds like a compelling story. Literature so often gives us better insight into history and events through focusing on one person’s story.

    Liked by 1 person

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