My father was a Foreign Service National driver working at the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, from 1973-75 during the country's civil war that eventually led to atrocities and genocide. My father often told me about taking Foreign Service Officers across the city to do their work. In 1975, as the Khmer Rouge tightened the noose around the capital, it was obvious they were going to win the war. After rockets and mortars started landing in the city, the Ambassador decided to evacuate all staff and family. I was born amidst one such attack, which my mom credits for my ability to sleep through anything.
When the time came, the evacuation helicopters had to do rolling landings and takeoffs to avoid being easy targets. Our helicopter was rolling rapidly and my mother, with four children, had to toss her two-month old baby (me) to the crew chief before climbing aboard. We were taken to an aircraft carrier and then to a refugee camp in Thailand. My father worked until the last day, driving around the city amongst the chaos trying to retrieve Cambodian cabinet officials but most refused to go. The Cambodian government surrendered four days later, and the officials my father tried to save were executed. The Khmer Rouge forcibly evacuated the city to begin their agrarian paradise experiment and the "killing fields" began.
My father, out on one of the last helicopters, joined us in Thailand, and we were quickly sent to Portland, Oregon. We were received and sponsored by a gracious family that housed us for several years. My family still maintains contact with them, and we consider them family. I call them my grandparents, and we've attended each others' family events, from weddings to funerals over the past 36 years.
Out of a sense of loyalty, gratitude, patriotism -- something that I can't quite put my finger on -- I've never envisioned anything other than a life of public service, though writing this was the first time I realized how much I've come full circle. In the Army, I worked in Cuban refugee camps during the boatlifts of the early 1990s. During my first Foreign Service tour in Macedonia, the U.S. Embassy worked in the aftermath of the 1999 Kosovar refugee crisis and with stateless Roma. In my New Delhi consular tour, I worked with the Dalai Llama's representatives to facilitate religious and cultural travel of Tibetan refugees. And now in Bogota, I work with our whole-of-government strategy, a key component of which is a large PRM program that provides assistance to refugees and internally displaced persons.
Become a fan of the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration on Facebook.Editor's Note: This blog is one of a series of individual stories by former refugees who are now working for the State Department. The series is part of the State Department's ongoing effort to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Refugee Convention and in honor of World Refugee Day on June 20. Each story reflects an individual's experience and does not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. government.