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Student, Refugee, Immigrant, Citizen – One Cambodian’s American Story


Sovan Tun, head of the the Cambodian Buddhist Society of Wat Buddhikaram Temple in Maryland, greets Pope Francis at the Vatican in Rome, in June 2015. (Photo courtesy of the Vatican/Sovan Tun)

Sovan Tun, head of the the Cambodian Buddhist Society of Wat Buddhikaram Temple in Maryland, greets Pope Francis at the Vatican in Rome, in June 2015. (Photo courtesy of the Vatican/Sovan Tun)

More than 40 years ago, Tun Sovan arrived in the US as a student.

When his own country, Cambodia, plunged into war and chaos, Tun Sovan found shelter in the US as a refugee and built a new life as an immigrant.

He went on to work for more than 35 years in federal and local government in the greater Washington DC area and has participated in a long list of civic groups promoting the Buddhist faith, religious dialogue and immigrant affairs.

He has met the Pope twice.

Tun Sovan describes his adopted home as a “special” country.

“The United States is special,” he told VOA Khmer in a recent interview, explaining how the US was built by immigrants on the principles of freedom, granting shelter and providing opportunity.

“One should not forget that the United States has the principle,” he said.

Now in his mid-70s, and an active community leader still, Tun Sovan believes the US continues to be a “country of opportunity,” and it must never lose its founding principle of being a shelter for those who, once like him, are unable to live in their own country.

Tun Sovan, center, stands with his mother, two sisters and a brother-in-law. The photo was taken in front of Pochentong International Airport in 1962, before leaving to the United States. (Photo courtesy of Tun Sovan)

Tun Sovan, center, stands with his mother, two sisters and a brother-in-law. The photo was taken in front of Pochentong International Airport in 1962, before leaving to the United States. (Photo courtesy of Tun Sovan)

Tun Sovan’s message resonates with many in the US where immigration has emerged as one of the defining issues of the 2016 presidential race, and as President Barack Obama prepares to host a global summit in New York on September 20 to address the world refugee crisis.

Obama wants global leaders attending the summit - being held on the margins of 71st UN General Assembly meeting - to increase funding for refugee humanitarian efforts, increase refugee resettlement, and provision of more opportunities for those seeking refuge.

“The summit is by no means a panacea,” Samantha Powers, US ambassador to the United Nations, and herself an immigrant, said in a speech in June.

“Even if we hit every target, our response will still not match the scale of the crisis. But it would represent a step – an important step toward broadening the pool of countries that are part of the solution,” she said.

The subject of refugees and immigrants has become a divisive subject in the US.

Republicans have criticized the Obama administration’s plan to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees during the current fiscal year, saying it could put Americans at risk from terrorism.

From left to right: Tun Sovan, Martin J. O'Malley, former governor of Maryland, and Mrs. Ngor Yok Bean in 2012 at the Maryland Residence. (Photo courtesy: Tun Sovan)

From left to right: Tun Sovan, Martin J. O'Malley, former governor of Maryland, and Mrs. Ngor Yok Bean in 2012 at the Maryland Residence. (Photo courtesy: Tun Sovan)

As the beneficiary of a scholarship to study in the US in the early 1970s, then a refugee when Cambodia’s civil war plunged the country in to mass killing, and now a US citizen of 40 years, Tun Sovan understands the debate firsthand.

He agrees that the government must take action against terrorists, but those actions should not overshadow the country’s long history of helping refugees and welcoming immigrants, he said.

The US became a developed country because of immigrants, Tun Sovan told VOA Khmer.

Speaking to VOA Khmer at a Cambodian Buddhist temple in Maryland where he does volunteer work, Tun Sovan shared a story of similar antipathy toward Cambodian refugees decades ago in Virginia.

Efforts by the local Cambodian community to establish a Buddhist temple were being prevented by a local woman. The woman, Tun Sovan said, was blunt in her opposition to the temple, saying she didn’t want immigrants in her area.

Tun Sovan said to the woman that, although she was not an immigrant now, she had forgotten that her parents were immigrants once too.

The value and contribution of immigrants to the US must not be forgotten or underestimated, he said.

From left to right: Maryland governor Larry Hogan, Tun Sovan, and Yumi Hogan, wife of Larry Hogan. This photo was taken in 2015 at the Maryland Residence. (Photo courtesy of Tun Sovan)

From left to right: Maryland governor Larry Hogan, Tun Sovan, and Yumi Hogan, wife of Larry Hogan. This photo was taken in 2015 at the Maryland Residence. (Photo courtesy of Tun Sovan)

After receiving a PhD in economics from the University of Tennessee 1979, Tun Sovan worked in local government and in the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a federal agency in charge of investigating discrimination in employment.

In his spare time, he devotes himself to helping his fellow Cambodians and other refugees to the US, and promotes understanding between faiths.

Among his many roles: He is president of the Cambodian Buddhist Society in Silver Spring, Maryland; vice president of the Washington DC Buddhist Network; founding member of the International Buddhist Association of America, and a member of the board of directors of the Interfaith Conference of metropolitan Washington.

Pope Francis invited Tun Sovan to participate in a Buddhist-Catholic dialogue in the Vatican in June 2015, and he met the Pope again during his visit to the US in September.

A commissioner for the Maryland governor's Commission of Asian and Pacific American Affairs since 1998, he is a founding member of the Immigrant Empowerment Council (IEC) of the Washington Metropolitan Area, and is on the Friends of Khmer Culture board of trustees.

Tung Yap, a resident in the Cambodian community in Virginia, said Tun Sovan is known for his work at the Buddhist temple and as a focal point of contact between the Cambodian community and the government.

“I see that he went to meet with [the]…state governor, senators, other congressmen,” Tung Yap said.

Schanley Kuch, a Cambodian resident of Maryland, said Tun Sovan is well known for his service to the diaspora, particularly his efforts to unify the different Cambodian communities in the US.

“He pays attention to the needs of the people and he serves the culture,” Schanly Kuch said.

Tun Sovan has achieved much in his more than 40 years living and working in the US as a public servant and engaged citizen, yet there is one thing he hopes to achieve.

He would like to see a Buddhist ceremony held at the White House just as other religions have been honored.

Each year, Tun Sovan said, President Obama has sent a letter to Buddhist associations to mark international Visak Bochea day, which celebrates the birth, death and enlightenment of the Buddha.

“But we don’t want only that, we want to hold the ceremony in the White House,” he said.

However, with just a few months left in President Obama’s term in office, Tun Sovan believes his dream - as with so many things in the US - is possible, but it may have to wait.

“Because he [President Obama] is going to leave, we will do our best with the next president.”

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