Immigrant carves new life in U.S.

Edinburg man born in Cambodia, recalls starvation, horrors during Vietnam War

By Ryan Cornell

EDINBURG — Sen Soan knows just how valuable his freedom is.

Soan, 64, was born in a village in the dense Cambodian jungle. His mother died soon after he was born, his father left when he turned 7 and his two older sisters were the only ones who looked after him.

“Everybody had to scratch their own backs,” he said. “You gotta eat what you can find, and what you can find you eat: anything four-legged except the table and the chairs.”

Starting when he was 8 years old, he worked at a restaurant from 4 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day. And each morning, he cried as he watched kids play at the school across the street.

When he turned 17, he quit his job at the restaurant to fight in the Vietnam War against the Communists.

“Back then, if they [Khmer Rouge] want to kill you, they say: ‘Can you be kind to us? We have a friend that passed away. Can you dig a ditch for us?'” Soan said. “After you’re done digging the ditch, guess what? They put you in there. You were digging a ditch for yourself because they didn’t want to waste a bullet.

“The other way is they have your children shoot you. They put a feed sack on top of your head and go tell your kid that they have a traitor. ‘Go shoot them and we give you a bicycle.’ A little kid in my country, you have a bicycle, it’s just like having a Cadillac, and the kid, he doesn’t even know who he’s shooting.”

Before the end of the war, Soan was captured and forced into a hard labor camp for two years.

During his time as a prisoner, when he would go a week without food, he said he often felt tickles in his throat.

It turned out that he had a dozen worms in his stomach, each about the length of his arm. When they stopped being fed, he said they came crawling out of his mouth and flopped on the ground.

“I never saw myself in a mirror for two years,” he said. “[After] I saw myself, I realized my cheekbones jutting out, my eyes sunk in, my knees so big, I started to get sick.”

When the Communist forces celebrated their victory in the war, he took a chance to escape by stowing away on a fishing boat bound for Vietnam. Once he reached Vietnam, Soan led a group of escaped prisoners to Thailand. That trip took four days by sea. There, he eventually made his way to a refugee camp.

Soan said he lived in a corrugated tin roof compound about 50 feet wide and 100 feet that was crammed full of other refugees, subsisting on not much else than a can of condensed milk per day.

In the winter of 1977, he was cleared to come to the America.

Sponsored by a county judge, he arrived in North Dakota that December as a 28-year-old without a lick of English.

He followed a friend from North Dakota to Herndon and started working at Dulles Airport, where he met Pamela Vincent, a food service worker he would later marry.

They moved to Edinburg in 1980 and had two sons and three granddaughters. She died from cancer in 2012.

He recalled his first job in Edinburg, working at Rocco Farm Foods.

“Back in my country, I worked a whole month [and earned] $100 Cambodia money [or $5 in U.S. currency],” he said. “I come here, I work $5 an hour.”

Soan, who carries an American flag in his wallet, expressed his gratitude for the veterans who fought in the Vietnam War.

“Cambodia and Vietnam were not your country, but you were willing to sacrifice your loved ones for a stranger,” he said. “I appreciate the moms and dads who sent their sons to my country to fight the war for me. I want to thank those parents, the wives who lost their husbands, the sons and daughters who lost their fathers.”

Soan retired in 2007 from Shentel after laying cable for 20 years. These days, he spends his time as an artist, carving ducks and other animals out of wood.

In a way, these carvings represent his flight from his previous life back in Cambodia, from the travails and obstacles encountered on the way and the sense of freedom he now enjoys.

Contact staff writer Ryan Cornell at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or rcornell@nvdaily.com