I Am An Immigrant: Survival to Sacrifice

His mother survived genocide and sacrificed her dreams to make sure he could live his.

Sevly’s college graduation cap was decorated to honor his mother’s strength in finding the will to survive during the Cambodi
Sevly’s college graduation cap was decorated to honor his mother’s strength in finding the will to survive during the Cambodian genocide and her determination to keep her family together once they moved to Long Beach, California. Sevly stands in front of a painting of the famous Angkor Wat in Cambodia, the largest religious monument in the world.

This article is part of the I Am an Immigrant article series in honor of Immigrant Heritage Month. For more uplifting stories of the American Dream in action, check out the podcast Community Voice.

Sevly Snguon (24 years old) is a queer Cambodian American whose family survived the horrors of the Cambodian genocide, in which much of the population was purged during the takeover by the Khmer Rouge. He retells the sacrifices his mother made for him, from summoning the will to survive in one of the largest refugee camps in Cambodia to sacrificing her ambitions once she arrived in the United States. Sevly graduated from UC Berkeley with degrees in Public Health and Business Administration, and worked at the Center for Disease Control (CDC) as a Public Health Associate upon graduation. He will begin graduate studies at Johns Hopkins University this summer.

[KC]: Tell me about yourself.

[SS]: My name is Sevly (pronounced ‘Silver’ like the color and ‘Lee’). My family is from Cambodia. I was born in the US, but a lot of my life has been following the immigrant narrative in seeing my family struggle. I’ve realized how me being a US citizen has given me more privileges versus my parents and even my older siblings. … My older brother was born in a refugee camp.

[KC]: You have a very unique name. What does your name mean?

[SS]: [I’m the] youngest of 4 siblings, and was [given my name because my mother had a dream about me before I was born]. Silver in Cambodian culture is a symbol of fortune, luck, and prosperity. And ‘ly’ is kind of like how in U.S. culture we measure our diamonds in carats. In Cambodian culture, we measure it in ‘ly.’ What that was supposed to mean was [that] I was meant to be the one in the family that uplifts us from the poverty or [the] struggles that we lived through.

[KC]: You’re a first-generation Cambodian from East Long Beach, California. What was the neighborhood like where you grew up?

[SS]: I grew up in a very under-served community with a lot of violence and racism, [and] a lot of poverty also. That narrative did shape me a lot, with Long Beach [having] a high Cambodian population. It was the place that my parents resettled to [a couple of years] before they had me. They felt it was the best option for me because the community was there… It was officially established as Cambodia Town maybe 8 or 9 years ago.

Sevly stands in front the Long Beach Performing Arts Center.
Sevly stands in front the Long Beach Performing Arts Center.

[KC]: How has your family continued to struggle?

[SS]: My mom [had] to run through the jungle, run away from bombs, navigate landmines… and the trauma that [she carries is her struggle]. That really has given me a passion [to find] happiness and joy, or [what is] the American Dream. That’s why they specifically came to America. It was to fulfill this American dream, but it hasn’t really been the way they wanted it to be.

[KC]: You told me you were one of the few Cambodian students at Berkeley.

[SS]: I believe I was 1 of 8 that was graduating the Class of 2014. I grew up seeing folks be incarcerated, folks who never graduated high school, or who dropped out of school. … [T]hat drove me a lot [and] kind of inspired me. … I knew something was wrong. Something was not right. What I believed was it was always the community’s fault, or people’s fault but [I came to understand] it’s larger than that. It’s the social context in which we live in, the narrative of our families as refugees and that intergenerational trauma.

There’s this phrase in our culture–‘Make sure you don’t fall in the water’–which basically is a symbol to not lose vision or lose sight of what you want to do or be pulled away from the goals that we have. How I saw it, I was very different in how I made it out. I have trouble talking about that narrative: That I made it out.

Sevly speaks about the Cambodian community’s struggle with pregnancies and miscarriages at the Maternal and Child Health Prog
Sevly speaks about the Cambodian community’s struggle with pregnancies and miscarriages at the Maternal and Child Health Programs Conference in Kansas City, Missouri.

[KC]: Why is that? Why do you say you have trouble with it? Is it because you feel like you haven’t made it out?

[SS]: It’s hard because I’m beginning to recognize how pieces have come into place that have given me the agency to do what I want, and to achieve what I need to achieve.

And [I understood] how it was a privilege for me to have my mother who was very understanding of me and knew how to communicate [her] struggles and what she wanted for us; and I think that’s a big thing in our communities that there is an intergenerational gap – we can’t communicate [with] our families.

[KC]: As in culturally, like it’s hard to communicate your emotions?

[SS]: Yeah culturally we don’t talk about love. …We don’t show affection [or love] openly, but my mom was very different. … My mom is sick too. I grew up with my mom being sick. She had Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, post-traumatic stress, and she was diagnosed with glaucoma when I was in college, so she’s had a lot of health issues.

[KC]: What was [it] like for you growing up?

[SS]: I remember when I was young, I used to help [my mother] navigate the healthcare system, and how that was hard. I was a young kid, and I had to translate. [I] had to be there for my mom to make her feel comfortable. I was integrally involved with the struggles of my mom … This is not just her struggle, but it is a bigger struggle within a community, and I made those connections later on in life.

I’m really trying to live this ideology of ‘lift as you climb’– ‘as I’m climbing, I’m lifting my community with me.’

A lot of that consciousness, a lot of that identity being a Cambodian American [and queer], there wasn’t a space for me to build that identity. It’s been a journey. I studied public health. I studied in the business school and minored ethnic studies… I felt like all of those would give me the skills to create things or build things to support my community and understand it from a health lens.

I want to make sure that our folks are having access to food and quality education—you know those social determinants of health. I wanted to connect the business aspect. How can I understand the structures and systems that are existing? How can I learn those skills to create something for my community? To this day I’m still trying to figure out what that looks like.

[KC]: Tell me a little more about your roots. You mentioned in the earlier part of our conversation that your parents were refugees. Can you tell us more about the Cambodian genocide and how that weaves into your parents’ story?

[SS]: During the period of the Vietnam war. [There] was a lot of political turmoil across Southeast Asia… Cambodia was indirectly involved. ... [It started with Operation Menu] or strategic airstrikes of South East Asia [by America which] led to the rise of the Khmer Rouge regime because of [the turmoil left in the wake of these airstrikes]. What Pol Pot used to galvanize Khmer Rouge troops or Communist troops at that time was the fear of America, the fear of Western ideology. ‘They were the invaders, and we need to make sure that we cleanse that influence because they’re here to attack us.’… That led to the rise of the Khmer Rouge regime, which were the people that tried to [achieve] Year 0. And their goal was basically to kill everyone and erase the Cambodian culture. They killed a lot of the educated folks, the musicians, [etc.] More than 2 million people died. Those are the estimates. Some people have said it was ¼ of the population that was erased.

It’s still hard for me to talk about it because I want to talk to my mom about it or my family, but it’s hard for them to share that with me.

[KC]: They’ve never told you the full story?

[SS]: Yeah. They’ll tell pieces of it. This is what happened in the camps: They were starving and had to work. My mom is starting to share more, how she saw her family dying and how that affected her. I’m still scratching at the surface, but it’s nice to see her sharing those stories, and I want to collect those stories from her.

The story she remembers the most was her running through the jungles and almost stepping on a landmine. She was pregnant with my brother at the time.

[KC]: I’m sure this is super sensitive, so feel free to not answer the question if you don’t want to. What’s the story of your mother seeing her family dying?

[SS]: I think she told me she didn’t know her dad died and she was looking forward to see him, but she found out he died a month later. She was devastated.

[KC]: How did she find out?

[SS]: People from another village said ‘Oh, your dad died. He [died] from starvation.’ She didn’t get to say goodbye to him. I think that’s when my mom told me she lost herself completely during the genocide. She didn’t care about living anymore. Her drive to live was gone; she was very close to her dad… She told me she was angry. She was yelling and frustrated and even asking some of the communist leaders watching over the village to ‘just kill me I don’t care anymore.’ That was very traumatic. I know one of her brothers passed away from the bomb.

[KC]: How did she regain her will to live?

[SS]: She was pregnant with my brother when she found out [her father passed]. It was my dad who played a [significant] role in her survival [because he helped her find her purpose to move forward]. My dad’s family was completely annihilated. My dad only had my mom. He wanted to build something with her. When they were escaping, he would also help carry her and help her move as she was pregnant… That was something really important that she had: she at least had my dad who really loved her and supported her during their escape. … My mom was the only one from her family that escaped; my dad was one of the only survivors from his family that escaped.

[KC]: How were you guys able to acquire sponsorship?

[SS]: I’m not too sure… They were at the refugee camp in Thailand (Khao-I-Dang). It’s one of the largest refugee camps. My great-uncle was able to help do all the paperwork, find money, and get my family here. … But he himself had to hide his identity as an educated person during the genocide, too.

Finding Purpose in Hopeless Circumstances

[KC]: Why did your parents pick the United States over any other country? Was it proximity?

[SS]:I think it was because my extended family was already there, but they believed in the narrative of the US, that it was the land of opportunity, that the American Dream is something they can have. … I think they also saw how the US was trying to support refugees.

[KC]: How was the United States supporting refugees at that time?

[SS]: … They were open and more supportive of refugees. There were refugee resources, transition resources... There’s a great book that talks about it by Eric Tang … It’s called Unsettled because it talks about how Cambodians are still struggling to this day, and how they’re not fully settled [and live in hyperghettoes]. There were refugee resettlement resources that were offered that the federal government was giving to help relocate Southeast Asian people, or to help families find income and a place to say. That drove them here, too. They thought America was open to them and a place for opportunity.

[KC]: Once your parents got here, what came to be the biggest dream they wanted to achieve in this country?

[SS]: I know at one point my mom modeled, or she did shampoo commercials which is kind of funny… I knew my mom wanted to go to school and [probably] be an educator. But she always reminded me how she didn’t have that opportunity to go to school, since she had to work to survive… My mom was already mentally prepared to sacrifice all her dreams to make sure we would succeed, that my siblings would succeed. She worked a lot of manufacturing jobs.

[KC]: What was her highest level of education?

[SS]: 3rd grade in Cambodia, I believe… Which is also what drives me to go to school. She blamed herself every day of her life that we grew up very low-income… She understood that she couldn’t give us a lot and she blamed it on [the fact that she didn’t go to school].

[KC]: You mentioned this earlier, so I wanted to ask about it. What were the ways in which she was able to transcend cultural norms of how Cambodians interact with their children to show love?

[SS]: One way was the [actual] words of I love you. I know how that’s so difficult for many Asian families, because they usually do it through action, and I think I also saw that too. And I understood it because my mom would use a combination of both. She would ask if I was hungry… and make sure I was warm at night, even though we didn’t have heaters… She would always walk me to school and show me a lot of affection. She would hug me a lot. She would give me Cambodian kisses.

[KC]: What is that?

[SS]: We give kisses with sniffles. I don’t know how to explain it.

[KC]: That’s adorable!

[SS]: Yeah. She was also very present in my life, too, despite her being busy. My mom always tried to make time for me when she could… Even something as simple as going to the grocery store and having fun with her [or asking her if I could have a candy bar or Lunchables]. I was able to be more appreciative of those actions because I knew it was hard for us to get nice things, but I knew my mom still wanted to get me some things. …

She would always try to embed these things, resilience, hard work, and remembering gratitude and the need to struggle. There’s a word in Cambodian culture called Torsu which means ‘to struggle’ and how my mom explained it to me [was this]: ‘We are people who come from struggle, we come from genocide. And here, we are trying to rebuild ourselves. Struggle is going to be embedded in who we are as Cambodian people. We’re going to struggle. And it’s ok to struggle, but it’s not ok to give up.’

Challenges during Assimilation

[KC]: What was the biggest challenge for you or your family during your time here in the US?

[SS]: Discrimination… When I went to school, I remember not being able to speak the most English because Khmer was my first language. ... I took extra English as a Second Language (ESL) classes and I didn’t know why. I felt that it made me feel lesser and I was stupid. … One of my teachers tried to flunk me, but my mom was adamant in not letting her because I completed all my assignments… I was always taunted or bullied by people, sometimes even by my own Cambodian people. I used to run away from school and telling my mom that I was scared, but [I remember] not being able to articulate that to her.

[KC]: Did they pick on you because of your accent?

[SS]: Yes. So they picked on me for…not being able to [communicate well] and also for my femininity… ‘He’s a gay person who can’t speak English.’ It was this intersectional identity of being a queer person, or a feminine young Cambodian person.

[KC]: How did school become something you continued to excel in?

[SS]: It was definitely my mom. [She reminded me,] ‘I need you to go to school, because I won’t be able to take care of you when you’re older. You’re going to be older and you need to take care of me.’ And that really resonated with me. My mom was also sick, and I grew up with her being sick. ‘You need to go to school, because I know this will open more opportunities for you.’

[KC]: Your mom must be so proud.

[SS]: She is really happy. And I’m happy, too, because I’m the first one in my family to go to graduate school. All my siblings did graduate from college, but they had their own timelines and they struggled a lot too. The varying amounts of acculturation that I went through versus them [affected my advancement. I used to ask myself], ‘How am I as the youngest person achieving things that my siblings hadn’t?’ ... I’ve been more humbled to understand it’s because it’s the lack of foundations they had entering these systems and they have also helped me navigate the education system. [I learned from their struggle.] My siblings played a role in [advocating for me and explaining the education system to my mom and me].

Triumph: A Decade of Debt-Free Education

Sevly will be pursuing his Master of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University at the Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Sevly will be pursuing his Master of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University at the Bloomberg School of Public Health.

[KC]: You’ve talked a lot about education. What is your proudest achievement?

[SS]: Graduating high school and getting the Gates Millennium Scholarship [funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation] was probably the biggest thing I will always remember. Every year they accept 1000 students and you’re eligible for up to 10 years of school funding; they fully fund your undergraduate. And they fully fund my Master of Public Health (MPH), and if I want to get a PhD, they’ll fund that.

That was the biggest moment of my life, since my siblings are in debt, and they still are because of school… There were 9 essays. It was very stressful… I remember getting a call from my mom who said ‘You got something in the mail. It’s big.’ …We all won. [My siblings were yelling,] ‘The baby brother is going to be able to do what he wants!’ If it wasn’t for the Gates Millennial scholarship, I don’t think I’d be pursuing my MPH or wanting to pursue my education, so I’m so grateful for them. I was maybe 1 of 3 students to get it in my school district.

Reflecting on His Experiences

[KC]: What did you learn about yourself in the process of seeing your immigrant’s journey and your journey of assimilation?

[SS]: The most important part that I have learned is to remember our roots and who we are, because [of] the history of Cambodian people – we were meant to be erased with Year 0 and the genocide; that culture was not supposed to exist; navigating to the US… was about never forgetting who we are and where we come from. We come from resilient genocide survivors; that is the legacy where we come from.

[KC]: If there is one takeaway you want the people who are reading this post to be left with about your immigration experience, what is that takeaway you want to share with the world?

[SS]: I’ve really learned to practice loving people. If people are different from me and come from different spaces – sometimes I’ve even struggled even with Cambodian American people, who are [wealthier. I need to challenge myself] to reflect on where they come from … or how that affected where they are today.

I’m looking at people and recognizing even within myself: How was I the only one who was able to go to grad school? Why am I the first one? It was because of my siblings [being able to support me, to love me, guide me, and the privilege I have with the Gates Millennium scholarship].

I want people to understand how I have been able to succeed because of the sacrifices others have made for me. In this case, my family has been my foundation and I have been able to reach my goals by standing on their backs. So the least I can do is ‘lift as I climb’ and give my family the life they deserve.

Footnotes:

  • For more information about Eric Tang’s Unsettled, the book Sevly references about better understanding Cambodian communities in America, click this link.
  • To hear more stories about self-starters, student entrepreneurs, and small business owners across the country, tune into the podcast Community Voice available on iTunes.
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