By Peter Tan Keo and Chhay Daroth
As part of the WSD-AEF Distinguished Lecture Series, the University of Cambodia (UC) hosted a lecture, “From the Killing Fields to the White House,” by Ambassador Sichan Siv on October 25, 2011. UC also bestowed an Honorary Doctorate in Public Service upon Ambassador Siv after the lecture, which was the first one held at the new university campus location. H.E. Dr. Kao Kim Hourn, President of UC and Adviser to Samdech Techo Prime Minister, presided over the lecture.
During his lecture, Ambassador Siv shared his life story about surviving Pol Pot’s Killing Fields and making his way to America where he ended up working for the White House and then the United Nations. He was the only surviving member of his family.
|(Left to right) Martha Pattillo Siv, Ambassador Sichan Siv, and H.E. Dr. Kao Kim Hourn posed for pictures after UC conferred an Honorary Doctorate in Public Service to Ambassador Sichan Siv fo|
He was born and raised in Cambodia and attended Pochentong Primary School and Sisowath High School in Phnom Penh. He studied very hard as a university student and learned how to speak English and French. After working for a Cambodian airline, he started working for the CARE organization in Phnom Penh; it was during this time that Cambodia fell to the communists.
His mother feared that he would be a target because he was well-educated, had worked for the airline and CARE, and wore glasses. She gave him a scarf and a rice bag and told him to flee. She also gave him advice that he always remembered throughout his journey: “No matter what happens, never give up hope.”
He rode his bike for three weeks and almost reached the border of Thailand before he was caught by the Khmer Rouge. For several months he was imprisoned in a slave-labor camp, working 18 hours a day of hard labor after which he was given one bowl of soup to eat; he knew he had to escape this nightmare.
During this part of his lecture, he shared a quote reflecting his optimism during this difficult time in his life: “The night is darkest for those who cannot wait. The sun will rise soon enough for those who are patient.”
He escaped to Thailand in 1976 by jumping off a logging truck and was sent to a refugee camp, where he organized English classes. After several months in the camp, he was allowed to enter the United States.
“I arrived in the U.S. with $2 in my pocket, my mother’s scarf, and an empty rice bag,” he said. “I was exhausted and tired, but full of hope.”
He picked apples, worked as a taxi-driver, and did whatever he needed to in order to make it in the United States.
“I told myself that I must adapt to America in order to be adopted,” said Ambassador Siv.
His ability to never lose hope, even under the most dire of situations, helped him persevere. At the end of his lecture, Ambassador Siv shared with the audience some wisdom borrowed from his wife, who says, “We need to create our own luck, and luck happens every day.”
He also encouraged students to keep on trying, even after failures, and to never be satisfied with what they are doing so they continue to work hard.
“And when you are doing well, don’t forget to do good,” he said at the close of his lecture.
Ambassador Sichan Siv was nominated by President George W. Bush in 2001 and unanimously confirmed by the Senate as a United States Ambassador to the United Nations, where he served until 2006. Prior to this, from 1989 to 1993, he served as Deputy Assistant to President George H. W. Bush at the White House and at the State Department as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State. He holds a Master’s degree in International Affairs from Columbia University.
He is the international bestselling author of Golden Bones, which has been published in several languages including Khmer in 2011, and currently serves as a Texas State Commissioner on holocaust and genocide. In addition to his public sector experience, he has held several positions in the private sector in social services, educational exchange, and financial services. He also delivers motivational speeches around the world and volunteers his time to local organizations. He and his wife, the former Martha Pattillo of Pampa, Texas, spend their time in Texas, New York, and beyond.