- Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission
Media Contact for Together, we made it.
Colleen G. Casey, Director of Communication
How much do really know about the people you work with? Where have they come from, what challenges they have overcome? What have they achieved, what stories they have to tell? What led them to do what they do? How much do they know about you?
For two decades, Cambodian refugee Sokvann Sam has worked at the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission (MRC) as a Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor. In his 20 years with the agency, Sokvann has helped thousands of individuals with disabilities live fuller, more independent lives by assisting them in securing gainful employment. In honor of Asian American & Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, Sokvann courageously opened up about his journey to America, and reflected on his remarkable career of helping others.
Escape from Cambodia
Sokvann grew up in a village in Battambang, a province in the far northwest of Cambodia. By the time he became a teenager, the country was torn apart by civil war, and then the brutal reign of the Communist group known as the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot. As a young man, Sokvann learned the art of perseverance and survival. The Khmer Rouge persecuted the educated — such as doctors, lawyers, and current or former military and police, resulting in the deaths of 1.5 to 2 million people from 1975 to 1979, nearly a quarter of Cambodia's population.
His decision to flee his village in September of 1979 came down to three reasons: political instability, economic uncertainty, and failing health. “Food was so scarce we struggled to find things to eat every day,” said Sokvann. “We ate anything that was edible–insects, plants, mice, grasshoppers.”
Starving and sick, Sokvann did everything he could to find food for himself and his family.
“I remember one day my father, uncle, cousin, and I went into the forest in search of food. We heard gunshots and were forced to scatter and spread out. I hid. After a while we called out for each other. My cousin went missing. We couldn’t find him. We didn’t know if he was killed or kidnapped.”
Sokvann returned to the village following that traumatic trip. His health continued to decline due to malnutrition and dehydration. Soon after he heard rumblings of villagers escaping to the Thai border.
“I decided to take a chance. I knelt to the ground, bowed to my father, and said goodbye to him and my siblings.” Carrying only three cans of rice, Sokvann and another one of his cousins began the arduous trek to Thailand. The pair walked for weeks, doing whatever they needed to survive. By this time, Vietnam had invaded Cambodia. Vietnamese offensives against the Khmer Rouge forced 750,000 people, including Sokvann to the Thai border.
“One night, my cousin and I took a chance to cross a guarded line of soldiers to freely escape,” Sokvann recalled. “It was the middle of the night when everything was quiet. We were in a rice patty and ran into soldiers. They tried to stop us, yelled, and then began shooting. All of us tried to spread out and escape. I got separated from my cousin. Now I was by myself, hiding, not knowing where I was. I hid in the bush until I heard other footsteps and peeked. I realized it wasn’t soldiers and made a noise and got out.”
Now separated from his cousin, Sokvann tagged along with a small group of strangers heading towards the border. Under the cover of nightfall, they navigated through piles of dead bodies, landmines, and booby traps. They crawled through mud, water, and brush.
Sokvann and the group reached the border safely and were able to see hundreds of displaced people in the same situation. “We crossed the border and got to the top of the mountain. I had no food or water, and I was so sick, and I was alone. But I was determined to make it.” Sokvann became more ill, and nearly starved to death. He found refuge under a tree. One day he saw a familiar face, an older gentleman named San from his village.
“He looked at me and said, ‘You look very sick. I will take you back with me. You can’t die here alone.’”
Sokvann went with San. They crossed resistance troops, Vietnamese troops, and were able to make it back to Cambodia safely. Miraculously, he met his father and siblings near the border. For weeks, Sokvann and his family were displaced, moving back and forth around the border, seeking shelter and safety from soldier attacks.
On December 9, 1979, Sokvann and his family took a chance and got on a bus that was operated by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. The bus took them to a Cambodian Holding Center for Refugee in Thailand.
Life in a Refugee Camp
Sokvann and his family were given bamboo to build a hut in the barbed wire camp. “While I was there, I needed to rebuild my life, not only for my own safety, but I felt obligated as the oldest of the five of us left, he said. “One of my brothers we left behind, one of them died from exhaustion prior, and my mother died of starvation. It was so painful. But I was determined to survive.”
Sokvann learned English by listening to tutors outside the walls of a learning center. Too poor for his own tutor, he did whatever he could learn and position himself to help his family and others. By 1981 he had mastered English and began working in the camp. He got a job working with the International Rescue Committee on the immunization team giving vaccinations to the children. He also became a basic health teacher and educated children in the camp on how to prevent diarrhea, and diseases including malaria, typhoid. In March of 1983, Sam married his wife Ranuom, and in 1984 the couple had their first son, Savong.
Coming to America
Ranuom had relatives in the United States that were able to sponsor her journey to America. She was in turn able to sponsor Sokvann, who then was able to sponsor all of his siblings and his father. On August 18, 1984 Sokvann and family let Thailand and were brought to a Refugee Processing Center in the Philippines. They arrived in America on May 25, 1985.
“It was a historic day for me,” Sokvann said. “I wanted to remember the exact days so I could share with my children and others one day. I have been in America ever since.”
After some culture shock, Sokvann and family settled in Rhode Island. “When I got to the states, I had brought my tape recorder to continue to improve my English. I wanted to continue to learn and go to school.”
Sokvann took a job at an electroplating company and went to community college at night to earn his GED. “I had two things in mind. I wanted to become a teacher or a nurse,” he recalled. He would sometimes walk mile to school after work but continued to persevere.
He earned his GED in July of 1987 and began working as an Outreach Coordinator for the Cambodian Society of Rhode Island. There, he provided social services, transportation, translation, and other support systems to help people become accustomed to American life and culture, a combination of his career goals.
A Lifetime of Helping Others
Sokvann continued with school while working and supporting his family. He earned an Associated degree in Human Services, and later a Bachelor’s in Social Work from Rhode Island College. By then his agency had merged and became known as the Office of Rehabilitation Services Rhode Island.
He began working for MRC on June 4, 2001. Knowing that he wanted to continue his career of helping others, Sam enrolled in a tuition assistance program through Assumption College, and earned a Master’s Degree in Rehabilitation.
The impact of the number of people Sokvann has helped is exponential. From the children in the refugee camp, to the thousands of individuals he has helped find a more meaningful life at MRC, Sokvann has never given up on himself, or anyone he meets.
“We’re here to make a difference in the life of other people,” said Sokvann of his role at MRC. “When they come to me and they are looking for something, or to get a job. We’re here because people need our support.”
Sokvann has helped people his entire life. Most people he interacts with have no idea where he came from or why he does what he does. When he graduated college, he decorated his cap with the words, “Together, we made it.” What has kept him going through the years is hope, he says.
“The hope kept me going. And knowing that it wasn’t just me, but thousands of others that suffered like me,” he said. “Hopefully by hearing of my story, people can become more educated and better understand one another.”