Local News

From the Killing Fields to Orange County: a Refugee Story

Fullerton resident Susan Ellis Ouleween is a successful businesswoman. She owns an audiovisual company, works as an HR consultant for major corporations, is a mother of two, and a proud member of the local Rotary club. She has a friendly smile and an upbeat, can-do personality.

She is also a survivor of one of the worst genocides in human history—the brutal regime in Cambodia of the Khmer Rouge under dictator Pol Pot and what became known as the Killing Fields.

As the world continues to experience numerous refugee crises—Afghans attempting to escape the Taliban, Haitians fleeing natural disasters and political chaos—it is instructive to remember the stories of refugees who have made it to safety and success (like Susan), if only as an exercise in hope.

“My parents still have nightmares”

Susan’s parents were originally from China. They went to Cambodia in 1947 to avoid the aftermath of WW2, with the rise of communist leader Mao Zedong, seeking freedom and a better life.

They met in Cambodia, got married, and began to build a life together. They owned and ran a hardware store and had a relatively good life until another communist regime took power in Cambodia—the Khmer Rouge, led by the ruthless Pol Pot.

Pol Pot ordered all the cities to be evacuated, forcing millions to leave their property and possessions and work hard labor in remote farming camps.

Susan’s parents and their eight children had to abandon their home and business and work in rice fields in the countryside. Starvation, torture, and executions were common in these killing fields.

“My family saw people get executed right in front of them,” Susan said.

Two of her brothers died—one of starvation and another of disease.

Susan, the youngest of the siblings, was born in a cave in the countryside in 1975, the same year the Khmer Rouge came to power. Mercifully, she has no memory of these horrors.

While in the camp, her family got only one handful of rice per day. Her siblings got rice

soup/porridge and she got actual rice because she was a baby.

“Until I was in high school, I didn’t know a whole lot about it because my family, including my siblings, wouldn’t talk about it. They said it was just so horrible. My parents still have nightmares,” Susan said.

Escape

It is estimated that around two million people (or a quarter of the population of Cambodia) perished during the brutal regime of Pol Pot (1975-1979).

Susan’s father wrote a letter to a friend in the United States, who contacted the Red Cross and agreed to sponsor the family.

But to get help from the Red Cross, the family had to walk for over 30 days to the Thailand border.

“My mom told me we would sleep under trees. We had almost nothing,” Susan said. “We would eat tree roots, rats, snakes, berries.”

When the family reached the Thailand border, the border security would not let them cross unless they bribed them.

“Of course we didn’t have any money so they put bags over our heads, put us in a vehicle and dropped us far away, leaving us for dead,” she said. “Our hopes were shattered.”

But her father would not give up hope. So the family walked for another 45 days, weak and starving. This time, the Red Cross found them, took them in and got them on a plane to Los Angeles. The family arrived in the United States on August 3, 1979.

Susan Ellis Ouweleen (youngest child seated on her father’s lap) with her family who escaped from the killing fields in Cambodia in 1979.

Donut Shops

The family didn’t speak any English when they arrived and their sponsor didn’t show up to meet them. They slept overnight at LAX and were able to convince a nice couple with hand signals to drive them to their sponsor’s address. They all piled into a station wagon and drove to Orange County.

Unfortunately, their sponsor couldn’t support them, so the Red Cross helped the refugee family find an apartment and gave them a small amount of money.

Her parents got in touch with a man named Ted Ngoy, who gave her parents work in his donut shop. Ted Ngoy is the subject of a recent PBS documentary called “The Donut King.” Ngoy, who was Cambodian/Chinese, and a former refugee himself, opened a donut chain called Christy’s and helped many Cambodian/Chinese refugees get their start in the donut business. This is why many donut shops in Southern California are Cambodian-owned. There is still a Christy’s donuts in Fullerton.

Eventually, Susan’s parents were able to open their own donut shop in Anaheim. They eventually opened other shops in Santa Ana and Lakewood. All of Susan’s siblings worked in the donut shops.

“I remember being in the donut shop at four years old,” Susan said.

By the time she was eight years old, Susan was working the cash register. By junior high, she was running a donut shop after school from 3pm to midnight.

“I had to do homework and all the responsibilities of the donut shop,” Susan remembers. “From a young age, I had a lot of responsibility.”

“If you put your mind to it, you’ll make it happen”

When she graduated high school, Susan wanted to go to college. Her parents wanted her to continue managing the donut shop.

“I figured out how to pay for college myself,” she said.

The summer before her first semester at Cal State University, Fullerton, she worked a full-time day job at an accounting firm plus nights at the donut shop seven days a week.

With hard work and determination, she managed to graduate from CSUF. She eventually quit the donut shop and began a career in Human Resources.

“From there I went on to a lot of big corporations and I ended up being a VP of HR. Now I own my own business,” Susan said.

Today, Susan lives in Fullerton with her husband Dan, her two children, and her stepson.

A couple years ago, she won the Warrior Award from the Fullerton Women’s Leadership Forum.

“The message I tell people is that we, especially women, have limiting beliefs and that’s what prevents us from achieving our goals I feel strongly that if you set your mind to it, you’ll make it happen.”

From the killing fields of Cambodia to donut shops in Orange County, to a career as a successful businesswoman, Susan’s story is a testament to hope and hard work.

“I’m very lucky to be alive,” she said. “Today, I feel so fortunate. I live every day how I want to live—fully and happily.”

Susan Ellis Ouweleen today owns an audiovisual company in Fullerton.

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2 replies »

  1. “Pol Pot was a political leader whose communist Khmer Rouge government led Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. During that time, an estimated 1.5 to 2 million Cambodians died of starvation, execution, disease or overwork.” her story along with other Cambodians were fleeing imminent death if they did not seek asylum. Today, the word “refugee” is casually applied to anyone who shows up at U.S. borders.

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