Thankgiving takes on added meaning for refugee family

8:04 AM, Nov 23, 2012   |    comments
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Thanksgiving at Stepanie Sao's home

BURNSVILLE, Minn. - Like many Americans, William Sao spent Thanksgiving surrounded by the biggest blessings in his life -- the members of his extended family.

And while many people take these holiday gatherings for granted, there was a time in Sao's life when reunions like this seemed they'd be out of reach forever.

Sao was 20 when he fled on foot from his native Cambodia, to escape the wrath of the murderous Khmer Rouge regime that had taken hold there in 1975.

"I escaped to Vietnam, hoping to find the rest of my family who already left the country," Sao recalled.

"I met my wife in Vietnam and we escaped together by boat in 1978 to Malaysia. We lived in a refugee camp for five months before coming to America."

Minnesota in 1979, in comparison to his war-torn homeland, was a peaceful haven, filled with opportunity.  Here William and Kim raised a family and reunited with distant relatives.

"I love Minnesota," he said. "It's even cold, but in 1979 you could find a job in couple of days. You get hired."

For years, Sao worked for Catholic Charities helping other immigrants adjust to life in Minnesota. He also sponsored other Cambodians, helping them start new lives here.

"I told people in orientation that as you're willing to work hard, and you're willing to learn something, your life will become better and as normal as people who came here before you."

Daughter Stephanie Sao, who hosted Thursday's gathering, said her parents never let her forget how much more opportunity children born in the U.S have.

"They always drilled that into our minds, that they didn't have a chance for a really good education," Sao told KARE. "So they always taught us to take advantage of that as much as we could."

She also recalls her mother telling her what a privilege it was to join family on holidays. There were times in her mother's life in southeast Asia she didn't know if she'd be reunited with her siblings.

"It seems like back in the Asian country it was easier to see each other more on a daily basis," Stephanie explained. "And here we have to really make an effort to do that, so we're grateful for holidays like Thanksgiving."

The Thanksgiving spread at Stephanie's house reflected the blended cultures of Cambodia, Vietnam and North America. The cuisine, likewise, ranged from crabs and egg rolls to a classic roasted turkey and tater tot hot dish.

"It doesn't always go together," she laughed. "But we definitely make all the foods we like to eat, American and Asian."

What endures is a deep appreciation for family. And for living in a land where days like this are possible.

(Copyright 2012 KARE. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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