OLD ORCHARD BEACH — Forty years ago, a mother and four children walked through the jungles of Cambodia, escaping the tyranny of the Pol Pot regime. The family had witnessed the death of their husband and father and feared for their own lives. They were so desperate they were willing to risk the jungle rather than endure the torture, total disrespect to humanity and possible starvation and death if they remained in Cambodia.

Do we as Americans realize how fortunate we are?

This family made it to a refugee camp in the Philippines, where they waited for a new life – somewhere. They had started a pilgrimage to safety. Amazingly, they had escaped death.

Do we as Americans realize how much we have to share?

The church I attend in Saco made a decision to support an immigrant family and help them assimilate to this country. I could not imagine what life must have been like for them; to risk so much that they would leave their country, customs, language, home, friends.

Do we as Americans realize we have been allowed a life of privilege and we have much to learn?

The daughter was older and could speak English – our connection for communication. The sons learned quickly. For the mother, English was very difficult. I wanted to find a way to connect with her.

I had them over for supper, and as my children played with the boys, I remembered that my family had a “Connect 4” game. After she was shown the pictures, the mother quickly understood the objective. Since that day, I have the smile she gave me in my memory. It was broad, and warm and full of love. We made the connection!

Do we as Americans realize the strength of love and the beauty of gratitude?

When the daughter married, the family had to make decisions about the sons’ schooling. The daughter and mother were going to move to the District of Columbia, where the son-in-law worked. The boys wanted to stay and continue their education at Thornton Academy.

The three sons were housed in private homes; one of the boys lived with me and my family. He did dishes, mowed my lawn, was always willing to help and anticipated how he could help. He studied hard and had a job at McDonald’s. I taught him how to drive. I asked if they’d had a car in Cambodia. “Yes, my parents had two Porsches,” he replied. I had assumed that they had little in Cambodia, but learned that they were a well-educated family.

Do we as Americans know how to be humble and industrious?

I lost touch with this family until three days ago. As we reconnected through a flurry of texts, emails and phone calls, I heard over and over: “I never forgot you”; “I love you”; “I am so grateful for what you did for my family and for me.” The son who lived with me now lives in Australia. He called and we talked for 45 minutes. What I heard more than anything else was laughter born out of happiness.

The mother is now 89. The three “boys” are amazing – one works as a civil engineer for our government and lives in Virginia; another, in Florida, owns a gas station, and “my Australian” is head of international sales for a company in that country.

And I suddenly realized how grateful I was for them. They taught me more than I ever gave to them. I learned about hard work. I learned about not giving up on life. I learned that language is spoken many different ways and that with love, we can understand. And perhaps more than anything, I learned that the human spirit can survive, but only if we learn to act out of love.

Immigration is an opportunity for us to become better people. We need to learn how to appropriately handle our borders, and we need to err on the side of generosity. Not all stories will end as this one did, but in giving opportunities to others, we might end up being richer for the experience.


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