In pursuit of the American Dream: Refugees risk life and family escaping from war-torn countries in order to carve out new lives in the United States

By Tiffany Ran

Rebella’s family celebrates Karen New Year in Kent, Wash. Rebella is from Burma (Myanmar) and was among the 60,193 refugees who resettled in the United States in 2008. (Photo provided by Paw Day Nga)

After the fall of Saigon in 1975, Choy Vong had  many things working against him. His father was the staff sergeant in the fifth infantry of the defeated South Vietnamese army. His brother worked for an American subcontractor company, and Vong’s own proficiency in the English language could get him pegged as a spy.

Their affiliations labeled them as traitors to a homeland that seemed to have turned against them.

When the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia, Sam Ung’s family and all citizens residing in big cities were in­structed to leave. Civilians were shoved out of major cities. Houses and major businesses like Ung’s father’s restau­rant were abandoned. Confused civilians moved numbly through the streets herded by the threat of pointed rifles. They were not allowed to look back or they would be shot.

For Rebella, another day in school was interrupted by the news that the Burmese army was approaching.

Bur­mese soldiers used civilians as forced laborers. The labor­ers, called porters, were made to carry artillery and sup­plies to the front lines. Laborers were also used as shields and human minesweepers.  Within a matter of minutes, the classroom was cleared out, and young people scat­tered toward the fields. Rebella hid in the fields for two to three days at a time, waiting for the soldiers to leave.

Finding an escape

Sam Ung and wife, Kim, in Khao-I-Dang refugee camp in Thailand. Ung is now a successful restaurant owner in the International District. (Photo provided by Sam Ung)

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, approximately 3,157 refugees and asylees settled in Washington state in 2009. Rebella and her family were among the 60,193 refugees that were re­settled in America in 2008, a staggering jump from the numbers of previous years.

Rebella escaped to a refugee camp in Thailand with the help of villagers who knew the back roads in the jungle. She and her family stayed at the camp for 11 years. They were brought to Washington with the help of the United Nations Human Commissioner for Refu­gees (UNHCR).

Vong arrived at the Pulau Bidong refugee camp by boat. The camp was located on an uninhabited island near Malaysia. At the camp, Vong lived in a small shack with his siblings. More refugees showed up each day.

While at the camp, Vong acted as an interpreter for United Nation delegates. He was interviewed by a CBS reporter who gifted him with an English textbook. Once in America, Vong and his siblings were sponsored by Grace Lutheran Church in Port Townsend, Wash. Vong dove into his classes and worked a part-time job.

“[My father] believed in education. He frequently said, ‘Fear not for a job you cannot have. Fear for your lack of ability to do the job.’ Now, our family is strong with a good education and good jobs. We are very grate­ful to America,” said Vong, who eventually became a public school teacher, in honor of his father’s values.

After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, Ung and his fam­ily walked barefoot for two months to reach the Thai border. They were sent back to Cambodia the first time. The second time, they were shot at as they tried to cross the border, but they crossed successfully.

Ung stayed with his family in a camp in Thailand before settling in Seattle with his wife and daughter. He got a job as a busboy and later as a cook at a diner.

Life and death

International law defines refugees as those who have fled their country of nationality or residence due to a well-founded fear of persecution because of race, religion, na­tionality, membership in a particular social group, or po­litical opinion. They are also unable or unwilling to avail themselves of the protection of that nation.

“Our goals with the American Dream have a lot to do with being a refugee to the United States,” said Connie So, senior lecturer for Asian American and Pacific Islander American Studies at the University of Washington. “These people are trying to find sanctu­ary from the more oppressive conditions they’ve lived through elsewhere.”

“It was a very bad time because there was always fear for our safety, fear of being taken away at night. We were harassed and threatened to be sent to re-ed­ucation,” said Vong. “I did not know what to do. The new regime was pushing various families to become farmers in the jungles. My body was skinny and would not survive as a farmer.”

During his time at the commune, Ung and other ci­vilians were forced to do backbreaking labor. Ung had to walk 60 kilometers each day to his work site. He was separated from his family members.

“They had a rule: Never say no. [If] you don’t obey their order, that’s it, done deal. Never say no. [If] you say some­thing against them, they just take you out and kill you.”

“[In] 1975. I was 20 [years old] when that happened,” Ung continued. “It was really hard. We just don’t get used to life like that, you know. We were starving. When they give you food and allow you to eat, then you can eat. Otherwise, you get nothing.”

“When I was a porter, I was assigned to carry the motar shells,” said Rebella. “They were so heavy, but I didn’t dare complain. If you complain, they will yell at you. There was one person killed in front of me. He was a much older man, and he couldn’t carry as much as the younger people. He couldn’t do it anymore and eventually, they killed him. My friends also told me they witnessed other people getting killed because they couldn’t perform the work anymore.”

“I heard a lot of stories about girls,” Rebella continued, “es­pecially the pretty ones, getting raped. Because of that, I didn’t dare to sleep at night. Every time we came back from a forced la­bor trip, we were so skinny — malnourished, tired, and broken.”

The Vong family in 1979 at Pulau Bidong, a Malaysia refugee camp. The family’s makeshift hammock and bed were made from a fishing net and tree bark. From left: Kin Vong, Kay Vu, Choy Vong, and Tin Vong (Photo provided by Choy Vong)

A new life

“There are a lot of struggles,” said So regarding the pro­cess of resettlement. “There is a complete loss of status. There is depression. It’s just very difficult for many people to start all over.”

“You don’t know the language, you don’t know the people, and you don’t know the place,” said Ung. “At night, I would hear the sound of a fire engine and I would get scared. … [During] the first 15 years [after] I came to the States, every week, I had crazy dreams where I’m caught in a battle field. I remember a couple times where I was shaking. I wondered where I was, and I looked around to see my wife and kids. I realized I’m not there, I’m here.”

“When the dogs barked, we knew the soldiers were there, so we were gone. Sometimes when there are dogs barking here, I jump. When there are parties next door and I hear people yelling, I get tense because the army used to yell at us all the time,” said Rebella.

“Everyone should care about this because the ideal of what America means for refugees is that this is a place for freedom and a new start. So when we think about American ideals and the American Dream, everyone, whether we come from poor roots or not, embraces that as part of our American identity,” said So. “The whole American Dream goes back to western Europeans, and that has always been about refugees looking for refuge, a haven. The refugee story is the American story.”

Rebella still struggles with learning English. She stays at home with her children while her husband works. Both of her children were born in the refugee camp. Someday, she hopes to learn how to drive, an activity she associates with living the American Dream.

After working as a busboy and cooking in a diner for many years, Ung achieved his dream of starting his own restaurant, the Phnom Penh Noodle House in Seattle’s International Dis­trict. Ung’s father was among the few Cambodian-Chinese that were most known to help native Cambodians. Ung con­tinues his father’s legacy, running his restaurant as his father would have — participating in fundraisers, giving people breaks on food, and donating when he can.

“My father taught me to be kind to others and help the community around me because when you invest in someone else, you invest in yourself,” said Ung. “My parents had a [restaurant] space at the public market.

They let native Cam­bodians sell goods to those that came to the restaurant. Some of the people that my parents helped in turn helped us during the Khmer Rouge time.”

Rebella’s, Vong’s, and Ung’s and other refugees’ experi­ences will be featured in the upcoming Wing Luke Museum exhibit “A Refugee’s Journey of Survival and Hope.” The exhibit will feature photographs, multimedia, and personal stories from the past. However, their journey of survival and hope continues today.

“My journey as a refugee from Vietnam has a beginning, but it has not had an end yet,” said Vong in an oral interview with the Wing Luke Museum. “I have been in the United States for 30 years. There are always changes in life, but the refugees’ experi­ence as boat people will forever be etched in my memory.”  ♦

Editor’s note: Rebella is a full name. Karens and many Burmese do not have last names. When Rebella applied to live in the Unit­ed States, her name was split up into Re (first name) and Bella (last name). She asked to be referred to as Rebella in this story.

“A Refugee’s Journey of Survival and Hope” runs May 14 to Dec. 12 at the Wing Luke Museum at 719 South King Street, Seattle.   For more information, visit

Tiffany Ran can be reached at

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