American dream found: Cambodia pair see it in their kids

Written by Bob on June 5th, 2012

“I’m so happy,” said Lynn. “I didn’t think we would ever have a life like this. This is like a dream.”

Lynn and Thy pose with their last trey of donuts at Uncle Ray’s Donut Shop in Yucaipa. The couple fled Cambodia 34 years a go to escape the Khmer Rouge regime, led by Pol Pot for a better life in the United States.

YUCAIPA, CA – Twenty-nine years ago, a then 21-year-old Lynn Prum embarked on a dangerous journey across her homeland of Cambodia. She carried with her a dream of freedom and a better life in the United States.

And on Sunday, Lynn realized that what she risked her life for was coming to fruition. Her oldest daughter, 22-year-old Ang Kem, graduated with a bachelor’s degree from UC San Diego.

“I am so happy,” Lynn said. “I am so proud of her.”

But this is not a tale so much of a child’s accomplishments, but of parents whose perserverance made it possible for their children to tread where they could not. The American dream, it seems, came true for all of the Kem family.

None of that could have happened had Lynn not taken some life-threatening risks. In 1979, Lynn, her sister and her brother-in-law dared to cross the Cambodian border into Thailand.

At the time, Cambodia was in the clutches of the Khmer Rouge regime, led by Pol Pot, born Saloth Sar. It was a time of slave labor, malnutrition and starvation, and the deaths of an estimated 2million Cambodians.

“We hid until the soldiers were gone, then we snuck across,” Lynn said. “If they would have caught us, they would have killed us.”

Once across, the trio sought safety with the United Nations.

Little did Lynn know that her husband-to-be was going through similar travails. Pothy Lao Kem, known to his friends as “Thy,” also fled Cambodia.

His was more urgent. Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge secret police was hunting down and killing anyone who had ties to the former government. And Thy’s father had been a government official.

“Every day you feared for your life,” Thy said. “People were taken away, and they never come back.”

When Lynn and Thy escaped to Thailand, they left their families behind. Lynn’s older brother remained in an orphanage. Lynn’s father and mother died in 1975 and 1976, leaving three children who were separated and taken away to orphanages.

Once in Thailand, Lynn and Thy found safe haven in the U.N. refugee camps.

They filed applications for acceptance into European countries and the United States. But they needed sponsors. Thy was fortunate; his sponsorship came within a year, and in 1980 he was living and working in San Francisco.

For Lynn, her sister and brother-in-law, the process of finding a sponsor lasted nearly five years. Much longer, said Lynn, and they would have been forced to return to Cambodia. Finally in 1985, a cousin in Stockton agreed to sponsor them.

Lynn was thrilled, happy to head to America and freedom. When her plane landed in San Francisco, she was overwhelmed by what she saw.

“Wow, it was such a different world,” said Lynn. “Everything was so big, all the tall buildings, and everything was so pretty.”

Though both had their feet on American soil, their journey to a better life was far from over. Neither Lynn nor Thy spoke any English.

Lynn moved to Stockton where she picked fruit and vegetables on the surrounding farms. It was a life of 12-hour days under a blistering sun.

“I got 25 cents a bucket,” said Lynn. “Sometimes I picked 20 to 50 buckets in a day.”

Thy didn’t have it any easier. He scrubbed restrooms, washed dishes in restaurants, cleaned buildings, repaired scuba-diving equipment and worked in doughnut shops.

Lynn and Thy’s paths finally crossed when a friend in Lynn’s apartment building said he knew of a young man she should meet. Lynn agreed, and as with Cambodian marital custom, a wedding was arranged within months. They married in 1985.

As husband and wife, they continued to work long hours. They moved from San Francisco to Pomona where they worked for doughnut shops as bakers and counter help. They sewed clothes for a clothing company.

At night, Lynn took English classes. They rented an apartment in Pomona and soon had three girls: Ang, 22; Antoinette, 15; and Regina, 13.

Lynn and Thy insisted that their daughters study and excel in school. And they have. All three are honor students. At Garey High School in Pomona, Ang graduated in the top 5 percent of her class.

“Sometimes I would get mad at them for not studying harder,” Lynn said. “I tell them that I was not able to have an education.”

In Cambodia, as soon as children were strong enough, they were sent off to work in the fields. Only the rich received educations, Thy said.

In 2001, the couple found good fortune when they heard of a doughnut shop for sale in Yucaipa: Uncle Ray’s on County Line Road. They jumped at the chance to own their own business.

They’ve prospered over the years and bought their first home in Beaumont in 2004. Their customers respect and admire them for their work ethic.

“They work hard and are friendly, courteous and generous,” said Andy Olson, a longtime customer. “I haven’t seen anyone work harder than Lynn does. She puts in 12 hours a day at least.”

For all their years of hard work, Lynn and Thy rewarded themselves with a trip to their homeland last August after nearly a 30-year absence. It was a bittersweet homecoming. Lynn’s older brother who remained behind in an orphanage was now a 57-year-old father of six working on a farm.

“He was so shy, but he hugged me back, and we cried together,” Lynn said. “He wants to come to the United States. It was hard to leave him, but he is too old to come here now.”

Thy’s family consists of cousins he scarcely knows. Cousins who were shocked to see him alive. They thought he had been taken away in 1975 and killed by the Khmer Rouge.

Thy’s family of five brothers and four sisters all made it safely out of Cambodia. They came to the U.S. except for one sister. He hasn’t seen her since they were together in a Thailand refugee camp in 1979. She found a sponsor in France, and he has not seen or heard from her since.

“I saw only the picture my brother took of her,” Thy said.

Ang went with her parents on the trip. She met cousins and family she’d never heard of or seen. And she left her parents’ homeland, grateful to be an American.

“There are two classes of people there,” she said, “the rich and the poor. There is no middle class. People don’t strive for a better life, they strive to survive.”

When Ang thinks about her parents’ lives, their struggles, and what they’ve overcome to make a good life for the family, she says it is, “pretty mind-boggling how they have succeeded.”

“My parents live for us,” said Ang, who after a two-year Peace Corps commitment will pursue graduate studies to become an orthodontist or radiologist.

And for Lynn and Thy?

“I’m so happy,” said Lynn. “I didn’t think we would ever have a life like this. This is like a dream.”

(On June 5, Lynn and Thy officially retired from the donut shop business with a going-away party hosted by their many friends and customers who love them dearly.)

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