My Life In A Strange Land
September 26, 2007, 10:13 am
Filed under: Travel Stories

My Life In A Strange Land

By Moeun, Sokhavuddh (Vina), Minnesota


Vina posed for a photograph with her brother, Uy Daravuth, on the bank of the Mekong River near Phnom Penh in the early 1990s (File photo)



ctober 23, 1996, I arrived in the United States and I came through Los Angeles. I did not know anyone in this country, and had never been here before. My only concern was leaving my country to find safety. When I fled Cambodia, I left behind my children, my mother, my brothers and all of my extended family. Besides these things, I left also my friends, my property, my culture and language and my entire history.

I boarded an airplane with only a small suitcase and the clothes on my back. At every moment I was terrified that the authorities would stop me and return me to Cambodia where I would face imprisonment.

On the airplane I encountered a few Cambodians who had families in the United States. I came to know two of them. One of them was elderly and had a daughter with a house in Los Angeles. I spent much of the trip from Cambodia assisting her on the airplane. The other acquaintance had family in Minnesota.

I was fortunate to have met these two people because I had no idea where to go or what to do on the U.S. The elderly woman invited me to stay at her daughter’s house in LA. The other woman suggested I make my way to Minnesota with her. As I had no other place to go, I decided to stay in Los Angeles and see what I found there. After nine days I decided to try Minnesota, where is a mysterious place to me that I would begin the long journey into my life in the United States.

My new friend, Maly, convinced her cousin’s family to take me in to their home along with her. I was happy to help out around their house in exchange for their generosity. Quickly I became their servant in a very uncomfortable situation cared for children, did their laundry, shopping cooking and cleaning. I was grateful, but felt trapped. I was also living in fear of the authorities and was afraid to go out of the house.

I was running out of money, but wanted to rent my own apartment. I went to my legal advocate, one of the few people I had learned to trust so far in this country. She told me in honesty that my remaining $500.00 would not be enough to pay for an apartment for more than a month. I felt devastated. I returned to my servitude and was miserable. I cannot explain how lost and alone and out of control I felt. I continued to push my legal advocate for help, insisting that I could not stay in my current situation. This is when Sara’s House came into my life.

I went to an interview with Sister Virginia Webb and Sister Ann Smith at Sarah’s House in the middle of June 1997. They asked me about my situation and my goals for the future. I felt nervous, but decided I must trust these people. Thankfully, they accepted me into Sarah’s house. At the first visit for the interview, Sister Gena Webb toured me to see the rooms in the house. Came to the kitchen she open the refrigerator’s door and told me, “This is your house. You can eat any time you are hungry. You don’t need to ask for permission.” The smile on her face combined with the warming welcome me into Sarah’s made me feel comfortable.

On 27th of June 1997, around 6:00 am., my legal advocate and her husband came to pick me up from the old place and took me to Sarah’s house. I rang the doorbell with my heart beating. I felt so nervous about a new place. But, I kept encouraging myself to be brave and calm down. I told myself that this is a country that is full of freedom and law. Nobody can do anything violent to me, if I do not do anything wrong. In the blink of an eye, after I pressed the doorbell, a woman showed up and opened the door for me. It was Sister Mary Margaret Langtau. She smiled at me and said, “Welcome to Sarah’s”. She showed me my new room and told me that if I needed anything, please let her know. I said thank you to her with the smile on my face.

Day by day I became more comfortable living at my new place. I helped to clean and sometimes I cooked for everybody who lived at Sarah’s House. Usually, I cooked on the weekends when we didn’t have a cook. One week after I moved into Sarah’s I started to ask Sister Mary Margaret about going to school to study English. She made arrangements for me to go to see Sister St. Luke who was a teacher at the Carendelet Center. Sister St. Luke gave me a test in order to assess my English ability. One week later, I received a phone call from Sister St. Luke who told me that I could come to school the next day. She sent me to Sister Mary Beneva’s class who would be my teacher. At this class I learned ESL, because I needed to know English in order to communicate with people in this country. Because of my positive beginnings with English, I became interested in obtaining my GED. I was able to pursue this and many other goals because of the supportive environment at Sarah’s House. More than simply providing me with food and shelter, Sarah’s House provided me with the stability and support I needed to begin my journey towards becoming independent and economically stable. I was able to obtain my driver’s license, begin my University studies at St. Catherine’s (I am pursuing a career in social work), receive psychological counseling; make many new friends who had situations similar to my own.

During my stay at Sarah’s, I had done volunteer work at the Neighborhood House, a community service center in St. Paul. After I received asylum in 1998, I applied for a job in an alterations shop, which is called ‘Sew What’. I would like to tell you a bit more about my experience when I was looking for a job. I was reading Newspaper everyday to see if there was any job available for me. I saw an Ad posted by Sew What’s owner and then I made a phone call for an appointment for the interview. I took the bus the next day from Snelling Avenue to Downtown Minneapolis. On the bus I tried to look for the skyway because the lady that gave me directions on the phone had mentioned the word Skyway. I thought that Skyway was a name of the shop. Actually, I did not understand English well enough to converse with people on the phone. I needed to read people’s lips in order to grasp the meaning. Luckily, when the bus turned on Hennepin Avenue I saw the word Skyway on the big sign; I rang the bell and got of from the bus. I asked a couple of people on the street to show me which way would take me to the place I wanted. I got lost many times by taking the wrong bus, but I never gave up. In the meantime, I found out the good new that my two children had been approved to come to the United States under my asylum application. I knew that I would need a place for my own. I started to look for an extra job in order to save money to buy my own house. I applied a job at Dayton’s and I was called for an interview the next day and I was hired at alterations department at Dayton’s one week after the interview. I worked two places and went to school two nights a week to obtain my GED. I saved up my money in order to buy a house so that when my children came we could be together again. However, my children came before I got a house. Sister Joan Mcguinty, then was a director at Sarah’s, arranged a room for my daughter to live at Sarah’s. My son was lucky enough that my friend Ginger Hedstrom, I should respect her as a sister due to the age differences and based on my culture, welcomed my son into her house with open arm and heart.

With a lot of help from the Sisters of St. Joseph I took the test at St. Catherine and started my first day of college in April 2000. In the year 2000 I had done three big things; began Sociology class at St. Catherine, sponsored my two children, and bought a house. Right now I cannot work two jobs any more because I need to focus on my studying in order to finish my degree as a social worker. I just keep working for Dayton’s, which is called Marshall Field’s now and going to school.

Even though, sometimes, I feel tired of struggling with my life, I still encourage myself to keep moving forward to finish my father’s will. I also want to achieve my dream as an educated person in the social work field so that I can practice my knowledge to serve other people who are in need.


4 Comments so far
Leave a comment

i support monk protest in Burma

Comment by admin

I am blessed to have Vina for my friend. She is an inspiring and amazing woman. Ginger

Comment by ginger hedstrom

That was a great story even if it was a true event in your life. I have never heard this story from you before. I am not surprised to see such a great story from my own aunt. I’ve always had a high expectation from you. Thank you for sharing your life story.

Comment by Darapiseth Uy

That was a great story. I liked it alot. I wish I could write a great story like you. I could see the whole story happening in my head. I will learn and study harder now at school and I will try to be like you. Thank you for writing this great story.

Comment by Morokot Uy

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