This book has been a very special endeavor for me. It has given me the opportunity to share my story, which is a journey from unimaginable horror, heartache, and disappointment to sweet victory. I am a survivor of the Killing Fields operated by the Khmer Rouge, also known as the Cambodian genocide. I am one of millions of inhabitants who in 1975 were forced at gunpoint to evacuate on foot into the countryside. Before you read on, I want to introduce myself. My name is Sopheap Ly (pronounced so-peep; the h is silent). My friends and colleagues call me "Sophie" because they tell me that pronouncing my real Cambodian name is like trying to say the alphabet backward.
I achieved a dream that at times almost seemed beyond my reach. I was once a child slave picking rice for fourteen hours a day, and now I am a medical doctor graduated from Howard University’s College of Medicine in Washington DC. Through faith, a determination to never give up, and the memory my father’s words—Your dream is never beyond your reach—my sweet dream came true. Not a day goes by without me reflecting on my graduation and the moment I walked across the stage and shook the hand of the dean of the medical school. Since then, I have continued with my work as a dedicated physician of internal medicine, committed to the health and well being of those I serve.
I am perhaps best introduced by the letter I wrote to the dean of Howard University’s College of Medicine shortly before I graduated from medical school: My name is Sopheap Ly. I came here to the United States as a refugee from Cambodia when I was 16 years old. My formal education started in the United States. I did not have formal education because as a child from the age of five to nine, I lived in the Killing Fields of Cambodia, picking rice fourteen hours a day. When I arrived in the United States, I knew very little English. I kept a dictionary in front of me while I watched TV—not because I wanted to be entertained but because I wanted to learn English. I worked several jobs to help my family pay the bills, but I never lost my focus. I believed the American Dream. I believed that America was the land of opportunity and if I worked hard and didn’t give up I could become a medical doctor. No one could stop me. Nothing could stop me. People in my community told me that I was too poor to stay in school. That would not stop me. I would prove them wrong. I would stay in medical school, and I would graduate.
Now that my graduation day is about to arrive, I would like to thank Howard for believing in my potential, and giving me hope and the opportunity to pursue my dream of becoming a medical doctor. Not only did I learn medicine at this institution, but I also learned much more. I will never forget the lifelong friends I have made here. I am grateful for what the school has taught me—to be strong, to work hard, to work smart, to respect others, and especially to be humble. I am indebted to the students and faculty who encouraged me to work hard and to never give up.
Perhaps most importantly, I want to express my gratitude to hundreds of people who over the last 14 years in America have helped me pursue the American Dream. America is indeed a land of opportunity.
God Bless America.
Evacuating The Good Life
I was born in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. I do not remember much about my childhood in Cambodia before the Khmer Rouge took control of my country. I remember being happy because I knew my father loved me very much. I was the apple of his eye. I have memories of my father driving me around on his motorcycle to his older brother’s house, which was a beautiful estate with lush farmland that had large tractors and shiny machines that harvested rice, corn, and lotus. He had forty people working for him. My favorite uncle was a wealthy landlord, and I affectionately called him Uncle Heng. His house was where I wanted to go on the weekends, because when I visited my uncle, he would tell me, "Take whatever is in my home. What’s mine is yours." I didn’t want anything from his home, but I did want lots of fresh lotus flowers from his garden. I remember carrying lots of fresh flowers back to my house and putting them in a vase. I will never forget how every year during the Cambodian New Year my uncle would stuff lots of large bills in a big red envelope and give it to me.
I loved my Uncle Heng for his generosity and kindness, and my father did too. I remember my father telling me, "Sopheap, this motorcycle you are riding on is a gift from Uncle Heng." My father was so proud that his brother had bought him such an expensive classic motorcycle for his graduation.
During our special visits to Uncle Heng’s house, my father shared his dream with his brother. His dream was for little Sopheap to serve in the medical profession. My father looked to his brother for inspiration and guidance because Uncle Heng had raised him after their parents died at a young age. My father later told me that my uncle said, "Sopheap will pursue her dream, and she will succeed."
Like Uncle Heng, my father always encouraged me during my early years, sometimes whispering in my ear, "Never ever give up, no matter how terrible things might be. Always follow your dreams. They are never beyond your reach." His words would serve as a beacon of hope and light during my darkest nights.
Before those dark nights, my family life was filled with love, laughter, and fun. I was four years old when my parents enrolled me in a French private school in Phnom Penh. In a Cambodia, a developing country, children usually did not go to school until a much later age. At four, I was quite young to attend school, and my mother sat in my classroom every day and wiped my tears, as I was very unhappy about being there. My dad, mom, sister, aunt, and I lived in a large red brick home in an affluent suburb of Phnom Penh. We had a nanny who was supervised by my aunt, who stayed with us while my parents went to work. On the weekends, we went on all-day shopping trips and visited relatives in the evening. One night, our cousins, aunts, and uncles gathered in front of my grandparent’s house to watch the Chinese New Year dragon parade in the month of January. It was a joyful time and very exciting, as bright colorful lights—red, orange, yellow, green—flickered and flashed against the night sky, while a large dragon danced wildly in the street just a few feet from where I sat. I was being held tightly and securely in my father’s arms as he sweetly kissed my forehead and cheeks while cuddling me in his lap. The fantasy of the celebration was beyond my expectation, and I couldn’t imagine that life could ever bring anything but this kind of happiness and joy.
It was just a few months later that Khmer Rouge soldiers stormed our home late one night with guns and swords, demanding that we leave our home. I’ll never forget that night. With only the clothes on our backs, my father, mother, sister, aunt, and I were ordered to leave our home by men with guns. After a long walk, we were herded onto a train like cattle. None of us had any idea that we would be taken to a distant farmland and nearly worked to death harvesting rice for four years before we would ever know freedom again.
The conditions on th