Former refugee found hope in Iowa after surviving bombs as a child
Before immigrating to America, he spent some of his youth in a Cambodian child labor camp. Here’s why Staff Sgt. James Suong decided to serve. Des Moines Register
Editor's note: James Suong first told this story on stage at the Des Moines Storytellers Project: War Stories event. The Des Moines Storytellers Project is a series of storytelling events in which community members work with Register journalists to tell true, first-person stories live on stage. An edited version appears below.
I was 5 years old, running from bomb shells in the fields almost every night. The Vietnam and Cambodian wars had been raging around me my whole life, and my home was a battlefield. Communist radicals wanted to turn my country back to year zero.
Men were regularly taken to fields and executed. One day, my father disappeared.
And another day, radicals had an AK-47 pointed at my mom.
They later took me away from her and my baby brother and our village, and forced me to work in a child labor camp. They forced her to work in rice fields. If you were 11 or 12, you were given a gun and told how to kill.
I was only 7. I cried and cried in the labor camp and looked for my mom. Back in the village, my baby brother was crying too. He was always hungry, and the constant sound of gunfire scared him.
So one night, I decided to sneak away from my camp to go to the rice fields and spend time with my mom and brother and bring them some of my rice. It was solid, and better than the soupy rice they were surviving on.
Guards heard the fence rattle as I rolled under it to make my escape. Shots followed, and I was lucky to have made it out alive.
I knew that time was a blessing. I wanted to stay in the village, but knew the consequences would be worse if I didn’t. Roll call in the camp came at sunrise, and if a child wasn’t there, someone would go to their village to kill their parents.
After those two precious hours of peace, I went back to my camp under the view of the guard tower. I saw the tears in my mother’s eyes when I had to leave.
Life and death at the border
I was 9 when the North Vietnamese invaded Cambodia. I left the labor camp to find my mom — my “guardian angel” — for good. But unfortunately, my brother was getting sick. My mom braved a long trek through the mountains to look for supplies and medicine for him and to scope out the route.
The three of us — a tired family determined to find a better future — later made that same long journey on a goat trail to the Thailand border.
I did what any 9-year-old would do on a long trip. I looked for a way to entertain myself. I saw a can and was going to kick it down the path. My mom screamed at me and I stopped. Our guide looked at the can and said it was covering a land mine. If I would have kicked it, it would have taken out our whole group.
After enduring that long, grueling four- to five-day trek through treacherous mountains and danger, we arrived at the border. A mass of people was gathered there, waiting for the border to open. That became our home for three months, with no shelter and little else.
There were also no doctors or medicine. My brother died at that border, and we buried him there.
But then, a glimpse of hope came. The border opened, and the U.N. and U.S. came to our rescue. A big bulletin board showed our names and case numbers next to many other people waiting to be resettled. Finally, after moving from camp to camp, my mom was asked where she wanted to go. Speaking no English, she pointed to the American flag. She knew there was hope and a future there.
A childhood regained and a purpose found
I was 11 years old. It was a snowy November day in Des Moines when my mother and I arrived. It looked like heaven. I had never seen snow before, and I realized pretty quickly that the shorts I was wearing wouldn’t cut it in an Iowa winter. My sponsor from the Catholic organization helping us got me a coat.
Life wasn’t easy when we got to America, but there was hope.
I had been running away from bombs and was now able to run freely like kids do. My mom worked hard labor in a meat-packing plant. Her hands always froze. I worked hard to learn English and better myself, and always tried to help others.
Iowa Gov. Robert Ray was first to take in refugees. I wanted to be part of that — serving the community and country.
In 1996, my life changed immensely. I dedicated my life to the service of others in this nation I’d learned to love and call home, and I joined the National Guard. I was 26 at the time and my daughter was 1. Looking at her, I felt glad that she would never see the terrible things I saw as a child.
People in training would always ask me where I was from and expect me to say Cambodia. But I am from Iowa; Des Moines is my home.
My mother and I took a trip back to Cambodia about 12 years ago. We had some family there, and it was good to see them, but I left that country a long time ago. It was just a memory, and it reminded me of war.
I’m at peace now not knowing what happened to my father. Now a father myself, I wanted my son and daughter to have a better life than I did growing up, and the National Guard has helped me do that.
America brought me here, and I want to pay that back.
ABOUT THE STORYTELLER: James Suong serves as a staff sergeant in the Iowa National Guard’s 671st Troop Command. Before immigrating to America, he spent some of his youth in a Cambodian child labor camp. He joined the Guard in 1996 to protect others from the horrific things he saw there. He lives in Des Moines with his wife, Khem, and has a son and daughter.
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