“Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” – 1 Thessalonians 5:18
I have recently been inspired and encouraged reading the short biographical accounts of US immigrants written by former president George W. Bush. In his book, Out of Many One – Portraits of America’s Immigrants, Bush recounts story after amazing story of people coming to the hope of America from every country imaginable. The stories have common themes of tenacious hard work, help from friends and family, faith in the Lord God for a better future, and deep thankfulness for the opportunity to live in the United States of America. On Thanksgiving Day, I offer to you this excerpt about the life of Thear Suzuki. May we each be reminded of the goodness of God and that it is His will that we be a thankful and content people.
Thear was born in Sokunthear Sy in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in either 1972 or 1973—she doesn’t know. “The first eight years of my life were spent in war and refugee camps,” she explains. “Upon their victory of the civil war, the Khmer Rouge, a Communist regime led by Pol Pot, drove millions of people out of cities and into the countryside, where men, women, and children were forced into labor camps.” The crazed, craven dictator tried to reset time to “Year Zero” when he seized power. By year four, he had presided over the deaths of two million of his people. “The Khmer Rouge wanted to turn the country backward into a socialist, agrarian society where all citizens were expected to work for the common good, living arrangements were communal, and meals were rationed,” Thear says. “They persecuted the educated, outlawed schools, and targeted Christians, Buddhists, and Muslims.”
Thear’s family of seven managed to survive the genocide, which took place on sites across Cambodia now known as the Killing Fields. They worked in forced labor camps and lived in the jungle for years before escaping to a Thailand refugee camp in 1979. After two years bouncing from camp to camp, they found support from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Migration and Refugee Service, which sponsored their move to the United States. “They helped us find housing, secure food stamps, find jobs for my parents, and register us into school in Dallas.”
Thear’s family only needed the food stamps for three months before becoming independent. “My father and mother worked minimum wage jobs to support our family,” she remembers. Her dad spent twenty-five years working as a janitor at Bradfield Elementary. Her mom took jobs at a local restaurant, Highland Park Cafeteria, and as a maid at the Mansion Hotel. She learned English by watching The Price is Right. The five kids pitched in by rooting through trash and redeeming cans for a nickel and bottles for a dime. They wore clothing donated by Bradfield Elementary families and dresses sewn by their mother.
Like so many immigrants, Thear struggled with the new language and the strangeness of the food. She remembers repeating a grade to get a better grip on English and scrapping the toppings off her pizza. Eventually, she mastered the language and even took a liking to fried chicken.
The family initially lived in housing projects in West Dallas, where they feared for their safety. “We often received phone calls telling us to go back to our country,” she says. “We moved out as quickly as possible.” Others in the new community were more welcoming. Thear’s parents had “heard the Good News” in a Thailand refugee camp and converted to Christianity. In Dallas they found a church that embraced and supported them. When Thear was a teenager, Ron Cowart, a police officer who patrolled their neighborhood, got her involved with a scouting group he had started for Southeast Asian students. The program, Exploring, taught Thear about community service and helped her study for her citizenship exam. She aced it and became an American on June 16, 1992.
Thear credits her third-grade teacher, John Gallagher, as another inspiration. “He helped me through my formative years and helped my family rebuild our lives. Through his kindness and advocacy for my education, my life was completely transformed.” When Thear graduated from Skyline High School in 1992, after serving as student body president, Mr. Gallagher nominated her for a scholarship to Southern Methodist University. “I have been able to achieve some level of success because so many have helped and took a chance on me,” Thear says.
With her degree, Thear went on to work as a technology consultant at Accenture for sixteen years. She’s currently a principle and talent leader at Earnst & Young. She serves with more community organizations than there’s room to list. She and her husband, Eric, are raising their four boys. Thear says, “We have come full circle, from receiving help from others when we were in need, to now serving others in need. My father has dedicated his life to sharing God’s Word and building disciples. He led the efforts to translate the first Cambodian study Bible. My mother has built water wells and churches in Cambodia, and at age eighty-one, she still goes on mission trips.”
“Being an American means I am free,” she concludes. “I have rights. I can believe what I want and make choices for my family. I can use my skills and resources to help others improve their lives.”