RU professor co-writes memoir with Cambodian refugee

The cover of "A Refugee’s American Dream: From the Killing Fields of Cambodia to the U.S. Secret Service" showcases a young Leth Oun and his journey to freedom in the U.S. government employee. - Photo via Professor Starnes

Editor’s Note: We previously referred to the memoir as a “novel,” which would imply that it is fiction, which it is not.

Sam Starnes, an adjunct professor at Rowan who has taught creative writing courses, co-authored a memoir this year with Leth Oun, a Cambodian refugee who survived the Killing Fields in the 1970s and went on to work for the U.S. Secret Service. 

“A Refugee’s American Dream: From the Killing Fields of Cambodia to the U.S. Secret Service” follows the life of Leth Oun, from his childhood in war-torn Cambodia to his adult life protecting U.S. presidents. Oun was tortured and imprisoned by the Khmer Rouge for three years and spent four years in refugee camps before arriving in America at the age of 17. He began to learn English, supporting himself by washing dishes for a mere $3.15 an hour. Oun graduated from Widener University in 1998 where he majored in sociology and minored in criminal justice. In 2000, he began his career working for the U.S. government. 

Starnes and Oun’s paths crossed over a decade ago while at Widener University, where the idea for the memoir was born. 

“I met Leth 12 years ago. I was the editor of the Widener alumni magazine,” Starnes said. “He told me at the time that he wanted to write a book about his life. I told him that he should, never thinking that I would be a part of it. He had already written 50,000 words and didn’t speak English until he was 18. We did hundreds of interviews. We finished a couple of years ago.”

Although the writing process was painful, it was necessary in order to tell Oun’s story. 

“It brings up a lot of painful memories but it needs to be done to put it out there,” Oun said. “It brings up the loss of my family members and Cambodian refugees who could not make it through. It’s not all about myself, it’s about the escape of Cambodia through the refugee lands, it’s more of a history of what happened.”

“Cambodia’s population before 1975 was 8 million, 4 years later it was 6 million. One out of every 4 people did not make it,” Starnes said.

While the purpose of the memoir is to tell Leth Oun’s story, it aims to provide a retelling of a part of history that is not talked about in America. 

“A lot of parents don’t want to tell kids what happened because it is painful, and that history would have been lost,” Oun stated. “I was hoping that this book will go to many different languages, not just English and not just Cambodian, to tell the whole world what happened.”

Starnes continued this sentiment adding some Americans don’t know what happened in Cambodia and it’s an important part of history that people don’t know about. “

“At the time we finished writing, our president was anti-immigrant and refugee, and Leth is protecting presidents. His story symbolizes to me what the Statue of Liberty stands for,” Starnes said. 

The memoir is not meant to be solely educational. Starnes and Oun want readers to feel motivated by Oun’s hardships and successes, hopefully applying it to their own lives. 

“It’s inspiring, everyone gets down and exhausted, but to see what Leth went through and came out successful and happy. The things he went through are nothing compared to what happens in America,” Starnes said. 

“Not many people know anything about the culture or history,” Oun said. “What you don’t know becomes hate and hate becomes fear. Life is attainable, with discipline, you can make it anything you want to. I never thought in a million years that I would be in the Secret Service. Nothing is impossible in this country.”

Starnes emphasized the importance of a memoir like this, especially in American culture. 

“It starts with tears of sadness but ends with tears of joy. I have published three novels before this, I never sought out to do this but his story is so amazing,” Starnes said. It made me realize how good many of us in America have it. It made me admire Leth for everything he has overcome.”

Despite all that Oun experiences, he still maintains gratitude for everything life has thrown at him. 

“I’ll say it again – everything happens for a reason. I do believe the gods have been looking out for me,” a quote from the memoir on page 246. 

Proceeds from the memoir will go to Cambodian schools and help Cambodian children in need. 

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