Saturday, 11 October 2008

Cambodian friend gets a chance to visit the land of his dreams: America

Anderson Independent-Mail News
By Jeanne Malmgren
Friday, October 10, 2008

I’m so excited. My friend Yoen is coming to America.

Yoen is 43. He has never been outside his home country, Cambodia. He’s never flown in a plane, never felt temperatures below 80 degrees, never seen skyscrapers.

But Yoen knows a lot about the United States. For years, he has befriended every Western tourist he could find, offering them taxi rides on his “moto” (moped) and practicing his self-taught English. While he shows them the sights of Cambodia, he asks endless questions about the U.S. And to everyone who’ll listen, he proclaims his dream: “I want to visit America.”

I met Yoen in 2000, on the dusty, noisy streets of Phnom Penh. I was there to report a newspaper story. My photographer went out scouting for photos and came back with a small, smiling man.

“Yoen speaks pretty good English,” the photographer said. “He can be our guide.” Yoen bowed with his palms together, Asian style.

Little did I know that eventually Yoen would help my husband and I adopt three Cambodian children, that I’d stay in his home on later trips there, or that I’d grow to trust Yoen so much, I sent him thousands of dollars at a time to help us build schools and do relief work in the villages of Cambodia.

He calls me Honorary Elder Sister. His son sends me e-mails addressed to "Auntie Jeanne." They're family now.

As a boy, Yoen survived the Killing Fields, a genocide enacted by the Khmer Rouge after the Vietnam War. Like millions of Cambodians, he is scarred by that horrible time in their history. But there’s also a spark inside Yoen. He wants to make a better life for his wife and three sons. He wants to learn and work hard.

On my last trip to Cambodia, in 2004, Yoen drove me on an exhausting journey into the countryside to search for my daughter’s birthparents. When we finally found them, Yoen translated as I struggled for words, tears streaming down my face. Now he visits them regularly, to deliver letters and photos. It’s our only way to communicate with them. Yoen made that dream come true for us.

Now it’s his turn. Thanks to the energy and vision of another American friend of Yoen, $2,500 has been raised to pay for his trip. He got a visa. Next month he’ll board a plane -- he’s so nervous! -- and fly to the place of his dreams.

He’ll visit two other American families, one out West and one in the Northeast. I get the honor of introducing him to the South. We’ll have to have barbecue, of course (Yoen loves to eat), and boiled peanuts. I’ll take him to the mountains. Maybe it’ll snow. He'll be here on Election Day, which is wonderful because he's fascinated by American politics.

We also hope to do a little fundraising. Yoen and I work with a nonprofit called Sustainable Schools International ( It was started by American adoptive parents who, like me, were inspired to help the country where their child was born. We help villagers find ways to become economically self-sufficient.

Not handouts, but a hand up. Recently, Yoen has been teaching people how to make "Smart Fuel" briquettes out of scrap paper and rice husks, so they don't have to chop down Cambodia's dwindling forests for cooking fuel.

If you’d like us to speak to your group and show a short film about Cambodia, please ask. Yoen loves meeting Americans. It’s his dream come true.


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