Thear Suzuki and Lea Zikmund

Recorded November 8, 2019 Archived November 8, 2019 38:09 minutes
0:00 / 0:00
Id: mby019391


New friends Thear Suzuki (46) and Lea Zikmund (23) talk about Thear's brief upbringing in Cambodia during the Cambodian Civil War. They discuss how Thear's family was sponsored to come to the U.S. from refugee/labor camps and how Thear has thrived in Texas by her dedication to giving back to the community that gave her so much.

Subject Log / Time Code

T talks about not being sure of her real birthday, the Cambodian Civil War, and being 3 yrs old and forced out of her home.
T describes being in the jungle and her family members were separated into labor camps. T and her older sister stayed with their grandma during this time.
T describes a dream or memory of hiding in a ditch and says even to this day loud noises startle her.
T describes going to church while in the labor camps and that religion was her first exposure to education.
T describes her relationship to religion now, believing that God has a plan for her.
T describes being sponsored to come to the U.S. and her relationship with John Gallagher, her 3rd grade teacher.
T describes all that John Gallagher did for her family and other families. He helped them with their taxes, took them to the dentist, and bought them dictionaries.
T describes how John Gallagher nominated her for a scholarship to attend SMU.
T talks about leading life with the ethos of giving to others, philanthropy.
T talks about the Orchid Giving Circle, her nonprofit that serves Asian communities.
T describes being a mother of 4 boys.
T describes how she passes on her family history to her sons.


  • Thear Suzuki
  • Lea Zikmund

Recording Location

Dallas Public Library: North Oak Cliff Branch

Partnership Type



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00:04 I'm tear Suzuki. I'm 46 years old. Today is Friday, November 8th 2019. We're in Dallas, Texas and my interview partner is Leah.

00:17 Lea what's your last name is X-Men 2 segment. Thank you. And my relationship to Leah is wearing new friends just from a week ago. Yeah, my name is Leah second. I'm 23 years old. Today's date is Friday night, November 8th 2019. We're in Dallas, Texas and I'm here with tears Suzuki who is also my new friend and we just recently met solterra. I wanted to ask you questions about your life and your experience after having you bring your mom in.

00:53 And kind of asking her about her experience with the Cambodian genocide and how she came to the United States and how you have the life that you have now, so I'm curious if you want to share maybe some of your memories or what you know of that that experience sure. So if so, I was I was born in either 1972 or 1973 and I consider my life to really have really started when I came to the US when I was 8 years old.

01:29 But if I were to back up a bit to the most significant event in my early childhood prior to come to the US was when the Communist Regime in Cambodia known as the Khmer Rouge, you're won the Civil War in Cambodia and took over the country and forced millions of people out of the cities and into the countryside and they they're their goal was to turn Cambodia back to an agrarian society. And so this significant event happened in April of 1975. And at that point, I was about three years old when my family as well as many many other families were forced out of our homes what they had told us what the Khmer Rouge had told the citizen was that the Americans were bombing Cambodia. And so we needed to leave our homes and don't worry about taking too many possessions with us because

02:29 Only need to be away for three days because the Americans with Mom and then they'll need to do repair of the cities and then we can come back and so you're thinking back on that. I mean that sounds ludicrous right? So if that if the country was going to get bombed by the Americans it would take much longer than 3 days in any case, you know, we all didn't really know what was going on. And so we were just kind of forced out of our homes and so as a young girl, I am the youngest of five children and my parents my four siblings and also my grandmother on my mom's side was with us when we left our home with that millions of other people on foot and going in near we didn't know what direction we were expected to go when we just kind of know it's just a mass Exodus of people out of the out of the city and we were in the capital and put on pan which is where I was born.

03:28 And do you have any sense of what your family's life was like before this happened. I know you were really young but in memories and stories certainly stories from my parents and you know, when I got older here in the United States, I became very curious about my family history. And so I've spent some time kind of interviewing my parents myself, you know, and what I understand is that we were we were kind of a lower-middle-class if you will kind of a normal family my dad in pnom Penh work in a pharmacy store kind of like a pharmacy convenience store, like a CVS or Walgreens, but certainly not at the scale of Walgreens or CVS, but just a very small kind of mom and pop were they sold some medicines and things like that and my mom was a farm girl she grew up as a farm girl never went to school and so she took care of the kids.

04:28 And so I think we're just kind of a normal family. I didn't go to I hadn't started school yet, you know as a three-year-old at that point and it was your prior to us being in the city. We lived in another Village and I remember my parents telling me that we had to move out of that Village into the city because during the Civil War the Khmer Rouge were kind of kind of working their way towards you in a certain direction that pushed people out of their homes and into the people were kind of escaping wherever they were that might have had some danger, you know with that was impacted by the by the war and people just kind of kept on moving in a certain direction to get away from the danger and we ended up in an infant.

05:17 So I think life was the was kind of normal amount of Cambodia as a third world country. If you know someone is a normal it's all kind of relative. Right? I don't know that it's normal like how it is to live in Dallas. But but I don't remember us being in poverty or or starving or anything like that, you know before the Camaros took over. So you said by the time you came to the United States you around eight years old.

05:45 Do you have memories before then of?

05:49 What life was like for you? Maybe your family spent time in a refugee camp? Yes, so that the killing field are which is what's called Noom. That's what the Cambodian genocide is called that took place for four years from 1970 April 1975 to 1979. So for 4 years myself and my family survived through any of the various ordeals of your not having enough food not having shelter like literally no shelter. We would live in the live in the jungle, you know, and my older siblings of my parents were sent it to a different labor camps where they had to do different kinds of jobs my older sister and I so the number for child and I'm the fifth child we were too young to be doing the kind of manual labor that they were having older kids do and so my sister and I actually

06:49 Stayed with my grandmother on my mom's side and wherever we were living at the time, you know, like a makeshift hot, LOL. What have you and then the jungle and so I understand that we did not go to labor camps like the older kids another story that my mom had told me over the years that have stuck with me was when you're when we left our home it took 15 days of walking until we got to kind of our first destination and then after our first destination our family was picked up by and many other families as well by a train to take us to another Village, but when the Train's dropped us off my my my dad and my older siblings and my grandmother left kind of where the train dropped us off to walk about 10 km to where we were supposed.

07:49 But because they couldn't take all of our possessions at once my mom and I stayed where the train stopped us for the train dropped us off and my mom told me that that was when it was the scariest time for her because we didn't know if they were going to be able to come back, you know, and no one was there and we were in the dark, you know by ourselves for like 9 hours until my dad finally was able to if you can imagine walking 10km there and 10 kilometers back right that took a long time. And so and she was my mom at the time was also very sick and she was throwing up and had all sorts of physical challenges. And so so that's one memory or one story that

08:41 Just makes me think about how grateful I am of what my parents have done to kind of take care of us during that very very difficult time. And another recollection that I don't know if it was if it's a Dream from post traumatic experience of what night is just this this Vision that I have of when the Vietnamese payment and liberated us and defeated the Khmer Rouge. I don't know if I dreamt it or remember it but just hiding in a ditch, you know while there are gun fires going, you know, every every direction and and to this day, you know it I still jump at loud noises and things like that. So, you know, I don't know if that was something that actually happened or if it was something that I dropped up as a result of my Early Childhood experience and then so 97

09:41 9 when the Vietnamese, you know a liberated us. We we did escape to go to the refugee camp and I then and in the refugee camps, so we lived in various refugee camp that was when my family converted to Christianity and in the refugee camps as we're families wait waited for

10:03 Other families are or relief organizations to help sponsor the refugees, you know into other parts of the world weather be to the US or Europe or in a different places. And so when I was in the refugee camps, I went to church there was no schooling right that I went to church and singing hymns and kind of watching people read the Bible and also had the Bible myself in the Cambodian Language. By the way. That was when I kind of learned some of the Cambodian characters and memorize some of the words just from being exposed to you know, the scripture and also being exposed to the hems. So religion was like your first exposure. Education at the same time exactly exactly, which is fascinating. Yeah. Yeah, and so to this day,

10:56 Yeah, well, I can speak kind of third grade level conversation Cambodian. I can't really read very well. So I'm not actually that literate and turn live in the Cambodian language, but I can read the Bible.

11:12 Just words that I memorized again, but more complicated more formal Cambodian words. I'm not familiar, you know with them. So it's just interesting now at 46 years old, you know, that that little time that I had in terms of having exposure to the Cambodian written language has stuck with me. I'm curious what was the impetus for your family to start practicing Christianity at that time. So it's a fascinating fascinating life life story in terms of my dad. So you're there were no Catholic missionaries and Protestant missionaries. Of course, the Red Cross. Is there salvation in your all sorts of relief organizations were there to assist and support the refugees, right? And so that was when my dad and also our family heard the good news for the first time and I mentioned

12:12 Families in the refugee camps were all focused on you know who can help sponsor us kind of and and you don't get out of the rest you can and so and there were there was a process for interviews for doing family is going through interviews and my dad told me the story about how before one particular interview he had a vision or a dream about a man being eaten by a fish and he didn't know what it meant. But when he went to the interviewing table, there was a woman who is that an American who did the interview asking about family history and things like that and and he shared with her what he had dreamt or saw and she pulled out the Bible and shared with him the story of Jonah.

13:00 And so from that day on and she also shared with Him scripture from Leviticus. I think Leviticus 26 which talks about how you know people who disobey God and what happened to them about people. Who would I don't remember the scripture exactly, but you would eat but you'd never satisfied. Yo, your your people will be spread out all over the world. So there are things are talked about in the scripture in this is in the Old Testament that

13:35 For my dad, he felt like it was talking about our experience, you know in The Killing Fields And so from that date on knowing about the Jonah story, he dedicated his life to spreading the good news and was extremely convicted and started being very curious more Curious to learn, you know about about God and about Jesus and just real quickly when he came to the US actually he worked as a janitor my dad for 25 years. He retired as a janitor of an elementary school, but while he was working as a janitor, he would study the scripture and he would also kind of with the other janitors, you know, sharing the word of God with them and he started the scripture through the Liberty home study and he actually became an ordained minister 10 years later, so

14:35 He's at a pastor of a Cambodian congregation in Garland, Texas and my mom and he

14:43 Work with the Cambodian community in terms of providing a place of worship. Some kind of all and I'm curious like what your religious what your connection with religion is at this point cuz it sounds like that was such an impactful experience for you when you were learning and reading the Bible and things like that like where you at now with it. Yes a personal a in my personal life and how I started in my life to where I am. Now, I believe that God had it has a plan for me and

15:23 The path that I'm on now is traveling down that plan that God has had for me because they're there are blessings in my life that I

15:34 Have no other way of explaining how how the blessings came about and so I attributed to God's plan for me and the purpose that God has for me in this world. And so there are and we can talk about it. You know, whether it be John Gallagher my third grade teacher or although the people who have come into my life and the organizations who have helped my family and have helped me for us to be where we are today. It's not because of Our Own Strength, you know. Because of our own I don't know intelligence if you will and it's it's it's pretty amazing where we are now and it's because the of the people that God has brought into our life. So I truly believe that it sounds like being grateful is like a very Central pillar of who you are like remembering

16:33 Where you come from and who talked to you and that's amazing. You mentioned Sean Gallagher and I wanted to ask you about him. If you feel like Switching gears and telling me so you sent me an article by Dallas doing good where you were featured for your philanthropy. And one of the people who kind of got you there was John Gallagher. So, who is he?

16:58 So I when I came to the us as an eight-year-old, you know, that's sponsoring organization helped set up my parents and our family and housing we lived in governmental housing and they also helped to register as kids into school. And so as an eight-year-old I start school in the third grade. None of us knew any English and none of us knew anyone here in Dallas. And so I was registered into Fannin Elementary School, which is in East Dallas near downtown Dallas and a John Gallagher was a teacher at Fannin and so a 19 this was in 1981. Where is it in flocks of Cambodian and Laotian refugees here in to Dallas and so they were you know hundreds of kids.

17:51 Now in DISD that d i c didn't know what to do with us because they were also know bilingual teachers at least not in the alotian language in the Cambodian language. And so they didn't know how to communicate with my parents and they don't know how to communicate with us. And so what John would I learned years later John Gallagher told me that they had a teachers meeting at this particular school and they talked about the other all these new kids now in the school and the school is overcrowded and Fannin at the time was predominant had predominantly Mexican and black kids not really any Asian kids. And so they had this teacher meeting and you know, they didn't know what to do with us and mr. Gallagher told me that he raised his hand and said I'll take them.

18:43 And so he volunteered after he was in his twenties at the time. He volunteered to figure out what to do with these kids, you know who didn't speak English in their parents didn't speak English and so as it turns out he's an only child his mom at the time was sick and it was just he and his dad who is kind of somewhat active, you know, and he and his dad decided that they were going to help out these Refugee families. So it wasn't just my family other families as well. So he was my first teacher my third grade teacher, but he wasn't just my teacher right? They bought my family a Cambodian English dictionary. They helped read letters, you know that cuz we didn't know how to read the letters. They help them do their taxes. They took us to the dentist. They get all sorts and I mean just, you know, the daily things that we needed help with a healthy.

19:43 And I don't know why they decided to do that. I think they were just really kind people and so he continued to help me with my schooling. Actually he flung to me in third grade when I ask my parents later about it, and they said that he actually wrote a letter to my parents and said that that I could go to the fourth grade but it would be better for me to stay in 3rd grade another year to get more proficient in English. Are you upset? Do you remember I remember being upset and embarrassed and and so in addition to all the ways that they've helped us. He's also a he has a photography as his Hobby and so he would take like pictures of our family and other families as well. And so like the earlier pictures of us when we first came to the US it's all from from John and so he's going to be in third grade and then and then my second third grade teachers a different teacher wasn't him. So anyways about my schooling he continued to hell

20:43 Me and then when I was in high school he middle school as well as high school when I need to do a book report or and I need to use a typewriter and he was one of the early ones who had a computer. You're not allowed to go to his house very often to use the resources that he had cuz we didn't have it and hit his doors are always open, you know to me and other kids as well. So when I was in high school, he nominated me for a scholarship at SMU is called the Herkimer scholarship is a cheerleading scholarship. I was not a cheerleader, but I think it was also you're looking for leaders. You do not just cheerleaders and I he's an alarm with SMU and it was that scholarship nomination that

21:29 Help me to apply to SMU not knowing the SMU was a private very expensive Elite University that I would never be able to afford but just because of that scholarship. I felt like I could apply there and it was only school that I applied to because I didn't have any other guidance in terms of other colleges and universities or anything. And so that I think that event the fact that he nominated me for that scholarship put me on a different path right because who knows where I would have gone to college. I knew I would go to college but I didn't know where I would go and you know nowadays kids applied at what 10:20 schools. I only applied to one it was because of that scholarship nomination. Have you maintained I'm assuming you've maintained contact with him. Absolutely and so

22:25 Mr. Gallagher, and I have the same birthdate February 7th, except his is real in mines fake and because of our common birthday we stay we keep in touch every year. He still teaches elementary school today in Dallas. So every year now, he sends me an email that says happy birthday to us to which I give him a call when I say happy birthday to us and and we you know kind of catch up a bit. So it's a wonderful relationship. That's really sweet. I'm curious like in this time. When he volunteered to take on this group of students and no one at the time was bilingual. How did you communicate in those beginning experiences?

23:10 That is an interesting question. So from my perspective, I remember the way I started to learn English was well, first of all, I was very embarrassed to be in ESL English as a second language as a young kid. I I knew you know that that was somehow lesser than others and I remember thinking okay if someone says something to me and it sounded like a question, like, you know, when you ask a question like the intonation kind of goes up that I would just answer yes or no, like I wouldn't know if it would be an appropriate answer but I would just say yes or no, and yes somehow I stumbled stumble through your the first couple of years before I started picking up more more English. Mr. Gallagher took it upon himself to learn the language that lotion language as well as the Cambodian language and he also learn the culture.

24:07 So he ended up if you can imagine this teaching cultural dance to lotion and Cambodian kids well, and he make connections with other cambodians in California. For example for like the appropriate cultural dance costumes and he would order them and make them available. And because he wanted I think he wanted other people to know about the Cambodian and Laotian culture. And so he proactively did that. This is a third grade teacher. This is not a rich man. This is not a you know, he did not have a lot of memes at all. And so when I think about and reflect on that, it's just amazing in terms of what one person can do in terms of lifting others up and he is definitely my ultimate role model for a stranger helping stranger and someone who's willing to give out of the kindness of his heart.

25:07 And without expecting anything in return that has shaped my life and my leadership and you said in the article a quote. I'm a testament of strangers helping strangers. So you kind of carry that into your own life. Do you want to talk about kind of what you do in the community and how you reach out and help other people around you?

25:30 Yes, I have in my life. I have felt that I have been a receiver of a lot of kindness, you know from individuals like John my third grade teacher as well. As you know was I was growing up. I remember going to Dallas parks for free lunches during the summer is near while my parents were working multiple jobs. We didn't have anything to do in the summer. But I remember going to the the parks to get the turkey sandwiches and the juice box and the chips or the apple or whatnot. So so when I add an adult when I look back, you know now I see that there were so many things within the community that I have benefited from.

26:15 And so today now there have more means right. I very much live on the motto of wanting to get as much as I can in terms of time and energy as well as resources and there's a great Winston Churchill quote that I love which is we make a living by what we get. But we make a Life by what we give and so I after I graduated from college I kind of stumbled into a career in Consulting technology Consulting and traveled for work quite a bit and started a family when I was in my late 30s and have but I had always wanted to be more involved in the community to get back early in my professional life with all the travel and things it was I found it difficult to do that. So it wasn't until 7 years.

27:15 Actually when I made a career change from my former company to my current company where my current company encourages Community engagement and giving back to the community that I got much much more involved and the first nonprofit organization that I had the opportunity to serve on the board for was back at an organization called back on my feet which is helping homeless individuals basically get back on their feet through through running using running as a way to motivate. And then the second non-profit board is that is now the Texas Women's Foundation. It was called the Dallas women's Foundation before because being a woman in the technology field, I often found myself to be, you know, one of the few in the field and so women's leadership and advocacy and advancement of gender parity.

28:15 Something is very important to me. So I got involved in the Texas Women's foundation and you know Act is kind of like after you serve on I wanted to nonprofit boards. Then you get to know, you know other community leaders and and so I now serve on a number of other boards including the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum and I got connected to that organization through a fellow ey partner who had retired and upon learning about my story. She thought it was very appropriate to connect me to the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum, cuz the museum was looking to expand, you know, our scope from continue to focus on the Holocaust certainly but also modern-day genocide as well as other human rights issues. And so I currently serve on that board and then with the Texas Women's Foundation about five years ago. We started to create what we called giving circles.

29:15 And the idea behind giving circles is democratizing philanthropy cuz often times and I know personally when I thought about philanthropy at least that word before I thought it was only for the rich, you know people who were millionaires who had a lot of money to give but really philanthropy just means caring for human beings, right? And so anybody could be a philanthropist at whatever level that people are able to give in terms of time and energy and resources. And so we started the Orchid giving Circle and our physical parents of Texas Women's foundation. And Orchid giving circle is Asian women coming together putting our Collective resources together to to fundraise and grant grant money to organizations that serve the Asian community. And so that's been a huge source of energy and a huge source of friendship for me as well through that organization, and then there are a couple more

30:15 Nonprofits that that I've been able to to get involved with as well. But ultimately it's that there are other things that I have a personal connection with actually there's another one that I want to mention which is the Boy Scouts of America. So you wouldn't think you do Boy Scouts of America. How did that come about your son's don't you? I'm sorry you have I was going to ask you but that's not why I'm involved with her that Boy Scouts of America. They're not they're actually not in scouting. I'm involved with the Boy Scouts of America because when I was a junior in high school, I was part of an exploring program.

30:56 And exploring program is part of is a program. That's within the Boy Scouts of America and I became a US citizen through this program and becoming a u.s. Citizen through this program. Help me to gain you no have the option to apply for more scholarship money for college. And so I got connected to the circle ten Council which is the local Boy Scouts Council here in Dallas through the CEO of the Texas Women's foundation and it's because the local Council was looking to diversify the board and so has the option to join the board and after joining the board. I learned that the exploring program was apart of Boy Scouts and it and I had personally benefited from it.

31:40 Yeah, when I was in high school, and so I continue to be involved now, even though it sounds like a lot because of the personal connections that I have and I want to be able to give back because I've received so much.

31:55 When you're doing all this service and interacting with people in the community, do you ever kind of Envision this younger version of yourself receiving health and being able to do that now like do you ever think of it in those terms?

32:13 Actually do you mean?

32:17 Ashley can you ask you a question again, so like being able to receive help when your 8 years old having this teacher be very like gracious and kind and want to learn things so that you can get your education then and recommending you for the scholarship. Do you ever feel that? You're kind of embodying that?

32:40 That same energy when you're helping members of the community and it's coming full circle for you solutely without a doubt it. I don't think about it. I don't think about okay, I want to help this person because I think this person is going to become something, you know, that will eventually benefit me. I don't think in that way. I just know that I have the means to give so I'm going to give and my hope is that person will pay it forward just as I am paying it forward. Yes, so it's all about just putting positive energy out there and putting kindness out there for others to receive and the hope is that they will do the same and that there would be a ripple effect.

33:25 I'm curious if there's anything that we haven't gone over that you want to talk about or I wanted to kind of ask you about being a mother. But if you wanted to go in a different direction we can do that as well know we can we can go in and in that direction actually, it's a very important part of my life and it's it's been a journey. So for boys, so by 29 was when I had my first son Zachary, he's 17 years old now senior in high school. My second son is Ryden. He's 16 sophomore and then have a twelve-year-old Mason who's in the 7th grade and Alex who is a nine-year-old in the fourth grade and

34:11 I never thought I would have four boys we cert my husband and I certainly wanted a mixed you do but we're blessed with four boys and with Mike the career that at that I've had in. My husband also works full-time. It's it's been a you know, it's it's been an interesting and fulfilling, but certainly also challenging from time to time Journey as a parent.

34:39 How do you pass on your family's history to your children? Very good question, cuz I think about that a lot in terms of the way I grew up and the way that they are growing up. Now. The other part is I guess the Gen Z generation and it's very different. I very much want to instill in them the Gratitude right and also just

35:09 Humbleness and the idea of being kind and so how I do that is by engaging them in some like in service Community projects and doing it with them you're volunteering with them and also getting them started and Leadership opportunities sooner rather than later and then just one-on-one conversations. I wonder if they're sick and tired of me already know asking them questions and and seeking to have conversations with them around subject matter. It's about the other people being kind of other people and things like that, but it's it's it's it's a daily thing that's required and also they have to see the example, right?

35:59 What do you want people to know about you?

36:04 If there is one thing that they could know about you.

36:09 That's such a good question. You didn't ask me that ahead of time.

36:19 I think the importance of

36:24 Seeing value in every person that we come into interact with that's what I tried to do because I remember in my early childhood not feeling

36:37 That I was

36:39 What just feeling that I was less than you in a lot of ways and feeling like an outsider and so my number one Mission and goal is you and everyone that I come into interaction with is to

36:57 Am I hope for them is for them to see their own value and their own worth and that they're not any better and they're also not any lesser than the next person and that we all have something to give to one another and we all have the same needs. And so we need to kind of see each other as human beings and not as whatever a female or a male or a minority or not. So just that the valuing of each human being as the beautiful person that they are. Well, I can definitely speak to that in the way that you receive people even meeting you I feel like you have such a way of immediately like acknowledging people and making them feel important and special. So you're definitely accomplishing your goal and I appreciate you sharing everything that you did with me. Thank you Leah. Thank you.