hard luck; determined joy

Posted by Paula Paine on May 25, 2011 in Alumni, Arizona, "School of Education", "special education" Orphaned, uneducated, and hungry; dodging minefields and bombs; living in refugee camps; dependent on the intermittent kindness of strangers - for a 10-year old Cambodian boy whose name means “lucky,” Samnang Yun’s young life seemed anything but. In the mid 1970s, Yun lost or was separated from his entire family when up to two million people, more than a quarter of the Cambodian population, died in the “killing fields” at the hand of the Khmer Rouge regime. Seeking asylum, he first found refuge in a Buddhist temple, where he stayed for one year learning simple math, reading and writing, as well as methods in natural healing and meditation. But wanting the possibility of a better life for the talented orphan, the temple’s spiritual leader had Yun smuggled into a refugee camp on the Thailand border. There Yun was taken into a Cambodian family’s “home,” a tent, where he helped with chores and taught the couple’s children the basic academic knowledge he gained from the monks. Three years passed before the morning in April 1983, when disaster struck again. Trying to roust the Khmer Rouge soldiers who had fled following Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia in 1979, the Vietnamese began bombing the civilian refugee camps along the Thai/ Cambodian border. Yun fled amidst flying body parts and spewing blood. “At one point I looked over my shoulder and saw three or five kids dead,” he remembered. “But I don’t know who they were because their face structure and flesh and bone were completely destroyed by the bomb,” he said.* Making his way across the Thai border, Yun found himself in a refugee camp that also served as a resistance camp against the Vietnamese. Every night came a barrage of bombings – and nightmares. Even there, however, where he experienced and witnessed unspeakable horrors, Yun found cause for hope, refusing to resign himself to the hate and violence that pervaded his world. Peering through the bamboo walls of the camp’s only schoolroom, to which he could not afford the two-cent entrance fee, Yun heard a strange new language – English – and became determined to learn it. Rummaging daily through the camp’s trash piles, he collected bits of charcoal for pen and liners from cigarette packs for paper, then eavesdropped to learn his lessons. He was a quick study. After a year, however, Yun was forced to continue his transitory and lonely life when he was moved to Khao I Dang refugee camp, a U.N.-sponsored camp in Thailand. But there was a positive difference to this camp – its occupants were interviewed for the possibility of relocating to an industrialized nation. “That’s where my life turned around and things began to get better,” he said.* After several years in the camp, attending school and teaching other students, Yun was given a new pair of blue jeans, a new shirt, and with the refugee number KD031173 hanging around his neck, he flew to Oregon as the proud son of an adoptive mom. Though he came by it through adversity, his name was finally his experience. Lucky. Yun didn’t rely on his new-found luck, however. As the saying goes, “The harder you work, the luckier you get,” Yun took nothing for granted in his new world full of opportunities. He worked tirelessly, not only for himself, but for those left behind in Cambodia. “I loved school to death – I had food to eat, clothes, a backpack, lessons in many subjects – it was life like a king compared to the refugee camp.” In addition to adapting to a new culture, a new family, and catching up on 10 years of formal schooling, Yun got a job as a busboy and was quickly given a raise due to his superior attitude, work ethic, and customer service. He sent 10 percent of everything he earned to Cambodia to help build orphanages for others like himself. Even though he had only one and a half years of formal schooling, Yun was able to graduate and received federal funds to attend any university in the country. He chose his new mom’s alma mater, Oregon State University, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in French, as well as health promotion and education. As part of his education, Yun had the opportunity to return to Cambodia in 1997, the same year that Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot was arrested and imprisoned. While teaching public health with the Global Graduates program, Yun received word that the father he thought was dead was, in fact, alive and living with other surviving relatives in Battambang province. After a tear-filled reunion with his 80-year old father, Yun vowed to return to Cambodia one day to teach and help rebuild the nation. “We can teach people and work as a community to rebuild our country so that history does not repeat itself,” he said.* And that is what Yun has been working towards ever since. Utilizing his diverse educational, research and health practicum background, he spent several years working with young people through Corvallis, Oregon’s Youth Entering Sobriety program. When he discovered a Cambodian cousin living in Arizona, Yun decided to relocate to Phoenix, and since 2007 has been working in special education at Youth Development Institute, a not-for-profit corporation that provides rehabilitation and treatment services for youth and their families. Coming from a background filled with trauma, Yun knows the importance of reaching troubled and mentally challenged children. “If we don’t work to educate the younger generation, the problems they face and offenses they generate will begin earlier and earlier. I want to train, educate and re-direct these kids to put them in the right direction.” Despite his extensive education, Yun was unprepared to meet the Herculean challenge of educating multiple grade levels of students with multiple levels of disability from multiple backgrounds in multiple subjects. That’s when he decided to enter Ottawa University’s special education program at his own expense. “The professors at OU™ have so much experience to give,” he said. “Before, I didn’t know how to create and deliver lesson plans for diverse ages and levels of children with problems ranging from autism to severe retardation. Now I know how to individualize my plans and can work with each kid efficiently and effectively, in a way that is easy to understand – and fun.” Dr. Joyce Werner was one of Yun’s professors. “Samnang’s positive attitude and demeanor were contagious,” she said. “He always presented the positive point of view of a situation. Other students looked up to him, sought out his counsel and valued his opinion.” Yun received his OU diploma in April. All of his education and experience with young people is leading up to his ultimate goal. With a burning desire to go to medical school and return to Cambodia as a teaching doctor, Yun has passed his MCAT exams and is seeking a teaching position in a hospital in Oregon to support himself while going to medical school. “I want to go back to Cambodia and help bring real democracy by investing in people through knowledge,” he said. “I want my people to be able to live in dignity.” *Taken from an article by Katie Willson, “Faces of OSU,” which appeared in OSU’s student newspaper, The Daily Barometer.