“Ever since I was little, we were running.”

I don’t really know how old I am. I’ve been in the United States since 1983, and I think I was probably thirteen when I got here. I came from Cambodia in the midst of the Vietnam War.

Photo from Colleen Bies

Song Siebert | Appleton, WI

Ever since I was little, we were running. I was born into this life of running. I had a home, but I wasn’t old enough to understand what was happening. According to my mom, there was gunfire all around us and she was trying to leave our home, but I wouldn’t leave. I was screaming, ‘I want to get back into my bed.’

My father was a general in the Cambodian army and we walked from village to village to find him. The ultimate goal was to get to a safe Haven in Thailand. My parents must have had a plan because in every new village we asked about him and either received news of his whereabouts or we’d see him and he’d give my mom money. Then he was gone again.

We traveled the countryside and slept on the ground with a campfire going. Sometimes we’d build a shelter or we’d occupy an abandoned shelter. Our nutrition came from ants and frogs, water lily flowers, mango, or if someone threw rice on the ground, we ate it.  We looked for other immigrants, and basically huddled together and all made camps.  My mom was pregnant and had a hard time, so I had to get water from the stream. I had to cook dinner and catch fish.  

Cambodia was in ruins.  We traveled from one village to the next, crossing streams, going up mountains. I climbed trees and I saw all the ruins. Angkor Wat, the Cambodian temple, was all shot up. Everything was vandalized. All the statues were shot to pieces. It made my heart ache and cry, to see all the beautiful stuff in nature, like trees, were shot at and desecrated.  

All we had was what we could carry using bindlesticks: pots, blankets, clothes. My responsibility was for my little sister. I was four or five, and I had to carry her. I had to make sure she was fed and nobody would hurt her.  

I can still see the image of myself sitting there and holding Slang, my little sister. I felt a little relief resting, and then very sadly she said, ‘Song, I am so tired. There’s snakes all over.’ I think she was hallucinating. I think she was sick. I said, ‘If something happens to you, Mom’s going to kill me. Mom loves you. Okay? Just go to sleep.’ Then my sister waved her hand, went to sleep, and never woke up.  She died in my arms.

Later I told my Mom, ‘Slang is not waking up.’ They took her away from me. Her weight was lifted off of me, and I felt a little relief, a breather. Then they said, ‘She’s dead.’ They buried her under a beautiful fruit tree, and then we had to keep moving. 

Eventually, we crossed the Mekong River and into the border of Thailand, which was a safe haven. We found the refugee camp and lived there for a while. Children were able to study, but schooling is very different from school in the states. One day, my dad went back to get my grandmother from Cambodia, from the border, and he was shot and died. That was a sad day. I had to have my head shaved, to honor a parent that passed away.

Once my dad passed, my mom wrote a letter to the church to sponsor us. They chose to sponsor my family because she was a single mom of five. And so, we were headed to Wisconsin.

I arrived in the United States bald. It is traditional to shave your head to honor a parent that passes away.

Photo by Colleen Bies

Our church sponsors actually thought I was a boy, and they gave me boy’s clothes and underpants, but I didn’t know any better. I was spinning from the travel because it was my first time in a moving vehicle and my life was so new.

We met with our sponsors in Merrill. They took us to the house we would live in. They showed us how to use the toilet. They showed us the refrigerator. And when we opened it up, we thought, ‘Oh, my God, look at all the food.’ And the stove! We never had a stove before. We always cooked on an open campfire. That was exciting. And they introduced us to TV. I learned a lot of my English from Sesame Street. I really loved Sesame Street.

What was going through my mind was, ‘Holy cow, how long is this going to last?’ We never stayed in one place very long. My life has always been on the move. For the longest time, I was always scared because of the things I had seen and been through in Cambodia. 

But I adjusted and kept surviving. I started middle school in Wausau right away, and went on to high school. Largely, I migrated toward the Vietnamese and Laotian kids, the mountain folk. There were no other Cambodians, but we stuck together, mostly because we had being Asian in common. We got along well together.

I was a feisty teenager, a little defiant. I was supposed to be in an arranged marriage with a Cambodian man from Minneapolis, but I always loved the blue eyes and I told my mom I wanted to marry a white man. My ex-husband is Caucasian. I met him when I was nineteen. He’s German. He loved me and wanted to protect me so much. After the traumatic events of my childhood fleeing the Vietnam War,  I felt like a wounded animal, and he just wanted to take care of me.I just embraced that part of my life where somebody actually took care of me and nursed me back to health. 

I never really had a childhood, so when I started raising kids, I basically lived through them. It was very important to me that they enjoy their childhood. I have three wonderful children now, and I allow them to be kids. I like to tell my daughter, ‘Here’s what’s going on, our life isn’t bad. We don’t have to hunt for food. We don’t have to starve for days not knowing where our next meal is.’ The trouble that we have is little trouble.

My children are lucky to be in the United States. They have so many opportunities, and I am, in a way, jealous. I’ve wondered what I would be like if I was their age living here. What education would I have? What person would I be? How far could I go in business? Where would I end up?

I have always wanted a family and I got that. And I wanted to start a business, and I got that. After I graduated from Lakeland College in 2014, I started Song Cuisine. I made egg rolls, stuffed chicken wings, fried rice, pho noodles soup, and pastries. It didn’t work out long term because I was a single mom spending 24/7 making it happen when what I really wanted was to spend more time with my son. 

My children have always been my center. I have always put them first. They might not seem big to some people, but these goals and accomplishments are mine. Now I work at KwikTrip. Guests ask me, ‘How are you always so happy?’ I tell every guest that comes to Kwik Trip, ‘Hey, I have a job. I have a good life and a good family. I have good friends. I really don’t have anything to complain about.’   

I took all the positives and negatives in my life and just learned from them. Any experience I have, it’s all mine.  It made me who I am today. I appreciate life. Through all my journeys, I am searching for someone to just love me. Just to survive and be able to have somebody who loves me unconditionally or to care for me, like a mom, like I do for my kids.  

I tell my story because when people think they’re down, at least they know of somebody like me that has come such a long way. I have traveled the road through hell to come to a land of freedom and opportunity.

Song’s story was produced by Rebecca Lemar.

Photo courtesy of Song Sierbert
Today’s immigrants (280,000 people out of Wisconsin’s population of 5.84 million) come from over 100 countries. In 2014, immigrant families in Wisconsin had $6.6 billion in spending power and paid $822 million in state and local taxes. 
You can find this map, a timeline, and other resources about immigrants living in Wisconsin at the Immigrant Journeys website.  Wisconsin Humanities is touring an exhibition, called Immigrant Journeys from South of the Border, to communities around Wisconsin. Learn more about the exhibit tour here.  

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