Sophanarot Sam wasn’t yet born the day the Cambodian genocide began. But she knows what happened because her grandmother was one of the millions of people who in 1975 were displaced from their homes at gun-point and forced into slave labor on Pol Pot’s infamous “killing fields.”
Twenty-five percent of Cambodia’s population perished in the genocide over a four-year period, but her grandmother survived, and she made it a point to frequently share her survival story with all of her grandchildren.
“She says she was at home in her bedroom, it was night time, and these men barged into her house, tore it apart and took anything that resembled any paperwork, anything that looked like education, anything that resembled new developments of the world,” says Sophanarot, currently an AmeriCorps Ally at Public Allies Los Angeles.
Sophanarot’s grandmother, Kimly Or, and millions of others were forcibly relocated to farms, where they survived on a daily ration of a watery rice bowl.
“It wasn’t enough, it was never enough,” says Sophanarot. “So what my grandmother did at nighttime, after they labored all day … when told to go into their tiny sheds where each family lived, she would sneak to the forest to forage for root plants, vegetables, anything she could find. She would bring this back to her shed and, with rice and water, would make this huge stew for everyone to eat.”
Her grandmother and parents eventually came to the United States as refugees, and together they raised Sophanarot and her six siblings in Los Angeles. By conventional standards, they lived in extreme poverty. Her parents struggled to put food on the table each week while working minimum wage jobs, such as janitor and seamstress. But hearing her grandmother’s stories at such a young age helped sharpen Sophanarot’s perspective of what it means to have and have not.
“Even though there were 10 of us crammed into a two-bedroom apartment,” says Sophanarot, “I felt fortunate that we had enough rice to eat, that we could eat three times a day.
“Those stories I heard growing up about my grandmother’s resourcefulness and struggles have always inspired me.”
It’s this resourcefulness, combined with a strong sense of solidarity she feels for people, that helped Sophanarot find her way to Public Allies Los Angeles, a program of CD Tech that’s based in South Los Angeles and is part of Public Allies’ national network of leadership-training programs.
Through Public Allies, Sophanarot is completing her service apprenticeship with the Southeast Asian Community Alliance, where she has been able to reconnect with the city’s Southeast Asian community and see its struggles up close.
“I see a lot of families who are at risk of being displaced and being homeless here in Los Angeles because of gentrification,” says Sophanarot, who earned Bachelor’s degrees in Sociology and Anthropology at Mills College in Oakland, and has also worked as an organizer and private tutor. “In some ways, I was fortunate in that our family was on Section 8. If we didn’t have affordable housing options, we would have been displaced as well.”
Sophanarot says she felt isolated through a large part of her school years, and suffered from depression while attending high school, where she was one of the few students with a Cambodian background.
“It wasn’t just that I was different, or my skin color, but also because I came out as queer,” she says. “There were a lot of questions around my identity as a human being, and this experience pushed me to think beyond just skin color and background, and to think of the diversity of human beings in general — and to choose to stand in solidarity with other human beings.”
Because she grew up in a refugee family, and has seen the struggles of what it means to be different and low income in a place like Los Angeles, Sophanarot has known for some time that she wants to be an educator. But now she sees that working with youth doesn’t always have to take place in the classroom.
“Any community that’s at risk of being marginalized, I want to work with them to help represent them,” she says. “I see myself as part of that community, and I want to turn my knowledge into action.
“The reality is we’re all connected,” she continues. “We forget that sometimes. We tend to recognize all our differences, but we don’t always remember all our similarities.”
Sophanarot says knowing your history — whoever you are — means better understanding your place in the world. Increasingly, she is seeing her place as an ally of marginalized peoples everywhere.
When asked to imagine what our communities would look like if they were full of justice and equity, Sophanarot says she wants to see voices that are often ignored or silent in the shaping of laws and policies finally be “highlighted, recognized, and validated.”
“I see a community of people who feel empowered to work in collective solidarity, no matter their identities,” she says. “I see people who recognize their own intersectionality as a tool to create the change they want to see.”
Sophanarot hopes to do a second year as a Public Ally so she can continue to grow as a leader. “No matter where I go I will try to make the most of what I have,” she says, remembering the legacy of tragedy and survival that her family experienced before she was born. “I am definitely a fighter.”