March 1: Ambassador Siv, From the Killing Fields to the White House
By Jasmine Bisheh, Education Intern
Exactly four decades ago, Sichan Siv came to America by choice as a refugee fleeing the horrors of the Cambodian genocide, which had stolen so much of his life. Within the next 13 years, he went from fleeing the notorious Killing Fields of Cambodia to being appointed as a United Nations Ambassador and thriving in a prestigious position in the White House. Today is the THGC Commissioner’s birthday, and his story is a living testament to the American Dream, as well as to the values of hard work, perseverance, and hope.
Ambassador Siv recalled his extraordinary experiences at an event in honor of President’s Day at the George Bush Presidential Library two weeks ago. As he shared in his speech, he was born in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital. When the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975, Siv’s mother told him never to give up hope. Even when sent to a forced labor camp, he kept her words with him. They helped him survive and escape what he calls “the land of blood and tears.” Cambodians sent to these camps were brutally forced to work for long hours of manual labor and were given little, if anything, to eat. Anyone who did not die of malnutrition or medical neglect was beaten or killed for falling short of ever-increasing production demands.
After a year in the camp, Siv escaped and ran for three days through the jungle until finally reaching Thailand. Despite the melancholy tone in the Thai refugee camps, Siv managed to lift spirits by teaching English to fellow refugees in an effort to move their focus towards a bright future rather than a painful past.
When the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975, Siv’s mother told him never to give up hope. Even when sent to a forced labor camp, he kept her words with him.
When Siv came to the United States, he had to work many jobs before furthering his education: he picked apples at an orchard, worked at a fast food restaurant, and drove a taxi cab before receiving his master’s degree in International Affairs from Columbia University. Upon completion of his degree, Siv volunteered for the George H. W. Bush presidential campaign and was chosen to work at the White House as Bush's Deputy Assistant in 1989. He later served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State and Ambassador to the United Nations (2001). After completing his service in 2006, Siv moved to his current residence in San Antonio, where he resides with his wife, Martha. He has authored the memoir, Golden Bones, and the thriller, Golden State: Love and Conflict in Hostile Lands. He has made it his priority to give motivational speeches nationwide, and his work through the THGC is an additional source of pride.
As both a survivor and a THGC commissioner, Ambassador Siv believes in the importance of education. The Cambodian genocide, as he explains, was a case of leaders killing their own people, especially those who were the most educated. As a result, Cambodia lost priceless aspects of cultural heritage that had been handed down for generations. To Siv, eradicating ignorance through genocide education is a continuous process that is never finished. He urges people to be upstanders and to speak out against injustice. He recommends that in the face of adversity, one must keep peddling and moving forward, as if on a bicycle. With contagious enthusiasm, Siv shares his special message of “HOPE: honesty, optimism, perseverance, extraordinary.”
To Siv, eradicating ignorance through genocide education is a continuous process that is never finished.
Ambassador Siv’s life is filled with unbelievable optimism, courage, and dedication. He survived the unimaginable horrors of the Cambodian genocide and made his way to Thailand. He came to the United States and within a matter of years earned a place in the White House. In today’s world, with large numbers of refugees entering the U.S., Ambassador Siv’s story provides a model of hope and, above all, demonstrates that the American Dream is real.
Tags: cambodian genocide khmer rouge killing fields phnom penh san antonio george bush presidential library