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Race & Social Justice

Sophak Yem Stands Up For Human Rights

2013 Asian Pacific American Heritage Month Local Hero, Sophak Yem.
Jim Spadoni
2013 Asian Pacific American Heritage Month Local Hero, Sophak Yem.

Asian Pacific American Heritage Month 2013 Honoree

There are little girls who dream of princesses, playing with friends, or discovering a new and exciting book. And, there is Sophak Yem. What she longed for were gooseberries, a bright green berry that grows wild in Cambodia and has a particularly tart taste.

Gooseberries. How she loved them when served with a mixture of salt and chili mixture. For Yem, a 2013 Asian Pacific American Heritage Month Local Hero honoree, growing up in a Cambodian concentration camp, gooseberries represented one of the few joys in her young life.

“I was fascinated with Asian gooseberries and one time I refused to eat my ration because I wanted to eat gooseberries,” she recalls. “My grandma was angry because, the ration was only one cup of rice per day for a family of four. And here, I’m refusing to eat my share, and I’m already malnourished. She was quite livid and she let her opinion be known to the camp master who made snide remarks. She said, ‘I’ll do anything for my grandchild. For her survival.’ So, because of her, I ate my portion. I must’ve been four or five at the time.”


The hardships began earlier in Yem’s life, starting with the day the Khmer Rouge regime took power and ordered her father, who was in the air force, to report to duty. Despite her mother’s warning that he shouldn’t go, he took off, never to be seen again.

“I lost my father to the Khmer Rouge regime because he was in the military,” explains Yem. “They basically killed anybody who was in the military, or who was an educator, or who had any form of education. Even people with glasses were killed for wearing glasses because it represented some form of education.”

A few days later, military trucks rounded up the families of those who had already been brought in. Something told Yem’s mother not to board. Good thing too, because all who did, were killed. Instead, Yem, who was only two at the time, was sent, along with her mother, older brother and grandmother, to a concentration camp.

Yem recalls, “I was quite young when the Khmer Rouge regime took over. The entire time that they were in power, we lived in a concentration camp. I remember bits and pieces of the war—the missiles going off, the bombing, the fear. A lot of times my mom was kept away from me, so I was with my grandmother a lot, and I remember her strength and her will to survive at any cost.”

After four years of life in the camp, Yem and her family saw their chance to leave the camp. “When news broke out that Vietnam was starting to invade Cambodia, and the Khmer Rouge regime was busy fighting off the Vietnamese army, they didn’t have the manpower to oversee the people in the camp. My mom had a friend who was like a coyote nowadays. She paid him one gold necklace to sneak us across the border. I think it took us a little over 24 hours of walking and we made it to Thailand, crossing the border in the middle of the night. I’ll always remember that day.”


In Thailand, they spent three years living in a refugee camp. There, they were treated humanely and Yem was able to attend school for the first time. Then, a church from the United States sponsored their relocation to the Boise, Idaho. The experience was a culture shock.

“It was quite different for us,” Yem explains. “A lot of things we never had before, like refrigeration and ice, and we were fascinated. We didn’t know what potatoes were either, or what to do with them. My cousin, who was orphaned by the Khmer Rouge regime, met an African American man who brought a sack of potatoes, and they spoiled. He came over and asked us, ‘How do you like the potatoes?’ We said we don’t know what to do with them. So he taught us and made fries, and we thought them amazing. We loved fries from that day on.”

Living in Boise didn’t last long for Yem’s family. “There was no Asian community. When we arrived, there was one Cambodian family and then, a couple of months afterwards, they moved to San Diego. They told us there’s a larger Asian community in San Diego and you’re able to get more Asian food. None of us knew what to do with American food. We didn’t know how to cook it. We couldn’t find lemongrass anywhere there. So we moved to San Diego.”

For Yem, living here meant finally being able to get the education she so wanted, including a degree in accounting from San Diego State University.

“Education is the way to success,” she observes. “It gives you a sense of meaning and value. My mom always wanted to go to school but she lived in a world where it wasn’t the norm for girls to go to school. The only one that got to go to school was her youngest brother. So, this is a huge step for me, to actually go to college and get a degree. It was a struggle for me because growing up I had no help. My mom is illiterate in both languages, and reads the bare minimum. Everything I had to do, I did on my own.”

Today, Yem is passionate about human rights and helping others with similar plights as hers. She volunteers countless hours for the San Diego chapter of Amnesty International.

Amnesty International San Diego at the end of Pride Parade 2012.
Amnesty International San Diego
Amnesty International San Diego at the end of Pride Parade 2012.

“Amnesty International’s goal is to create a just world where everyone enjoys all the rights enshrined to them under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” notes Yem. “We try to educate and mobilize the public to bring awareness to grave human rights abuses. We write letters on behalf of victims. In addition, we organize and participate in rallies, lobby Congress, co-sponsor events, and run film screenings. We take part in San Diego’s Earth Fair Festival and march in San Diego’s Pride Parade. We also organize fundraisers every year and make an effort to have social events every other month.”

Yem, who strongly believes in the work she does, feels gratitude for the freedom she now experiences. “It’s important for me to help Amnesty International, because there are abuses going on around the world constantly. Here in San Diego, we enjoy all these amazing rights, like freedom of speech, and freedom to peacefully assemble. I appreciate these rights all the more because of where I came from, and want to make sure others have rights, too.”

Yem shares her story willingly in order to draw attention to human rights violations around the world. “I have friends who lived through the same thing, but they won’t talk about it. Stirs up a lot of bad memories. Maybe the fact that I was so young and resilient to what was going on, it didn’t bother me, but I know a lot of people are suffering from the memories. Even my mom won’t talk about it.”

Winning the Local Heroes Award gives Yem a sense of achievement and accomplishment. Ecstatic about the honor, if she could, she would dedicate the award to the two women who have greatly impacted her life: her grandmother, who passed away 14 years ago, and her mother.

“They are two of the strongest women I’ve known in my entire life,” says Yem, whose eyes fill with tears. “Even though my mother couldn’t help me in school, she instilled in me the importance of education and the will to overcome obstacles in life. I owe them both so much.”

Yem, who now has a daughter of her own, is a believer that one person can affect change. “Regardless of whether or not you think you can make a difference, you will always make a difference,” she affirms. “If you let your voice be known, even though it may take time, perseverance will pull itself through. I believe in never giving up, no matter what comes at you.”

Sophak Yem, Asian Pacific Heritage Month - Union Bank Local Heroes