Doughnuts pave Cambodian family's path to America

Doughnuts pave Cambodian family's path to America
In this May 19, 2010 photo, Phat Ong uses long sticks to turn the donuts as he fries them at Up With Donuts in Pendleton, Ore. (AP Photo/East Oregonian, Daniel Wattenburger)

PENDLETON, Ore. (AP) – When Phat and Sokhan Ong first started working at a Pendleton doughnut shop, they didn't know a bismarck from a bear claw.

"I didn't even know what a maple bar was," admits Sokhan.

The Ongs had fled Cambodia, a place where people often struggled to find enough food simply to survive. Doughnuts didn't exist in their world.

Sokhan and Phat (pronounced SO-kon and Paht) journeyed separately to Pendleton from Cambodia in the early 1980s. Cambodian leader Pol Pot had forced city dwellers and villagers alike to work in the fields. Those who resisted or moved too slowly were killed. Others died from starvation and overwork. More than 20 percent of the Cambodian population died over several years of the Khmer Rouge regime.

Both Phat and Sokhan ended up in Pendleton, sponsored by St. Mary's Catholic Church. The two met and married in Pendleton and now own and operate Up With Donuts. Over the years, they've shared their slice of the American dream with family members living back in Cambodia by paying for their passage, helping with paperwork and securing attorneys. So far, the couple has brought two nieces and two nephews to Oregon.

The latest is Nita Soeum. The 21-year-old came in October and now divides her time between learning English at Blue Mountain Community College and working at the doughnut shop.

"They learn English here," Sokhan said, smiling as she watched Nita retrieving a doughnut from the glass-covered case for a customer. "Our customers help them with their English."

The couple shepherded their first family member to Pendleton four years ago. She is now 26 and working as a blackjack dealer at the Wildhorse Casino.

The journey to America was tougher for Phat and Sokhan. Sokhan, her parents, five sisters and younger brother fled to the Philippines in 1979, where they lived in a camp for three years. During their stay, they took a six-month culture orientation course. They learned to use an oven and stove, rather than cooking on a fire surrounded by a ring of rocks. They became acquainted with flush toilets and other trappings of American living.

The family finally traveled to Pendleton where Sokhan's older brother Vado had moved earlier and found a job at the J.R. Simplot potato processing plant in Hermiston. Soon, she was working at the plant and struggling to learn English.

"I only knew two words – yes and no," she said.

Phat escaped from Cambodia to Thailand in 1979 and traveled to Olympia, Wash., before ending up in Pendleton in 1982. There, he worked a series of dishwashing jobs at the Circle S Barbecue, Cimmiyotti's and the Red Lion for minimum wage. He lived in a tiny studio apartment for $90 per month.

Inevitably he met Sokhan, one of the only other Cambodians in town. They married two years later and Phat started a job at Simplot.

Buying the doughnut shop was "an accident," Sokhan said.

They agreed to manage the business, though they knew little more than nothing.

"We came in blind," Phat said. "We had no idea of doughnut names or how to make them."

They learned the business.

"It was seven days a week, 24 hours a day, just the two of us," Phat said.

Their two sons, Shane and Panna, then 12 and 8, worked at the shop after school. Ultimately, the couple bought the place.

The couple said they feel blessed to live in the United States and able to help fellow Cambodians. They saved money from their tip jar to buy textbooks for students attending Phat's boyhood school, and then traveled to the Cambodian village in 2008 to deliver the books.

Their homeland, though greatly improved, is still a country without mooring.

"The government is unstable. They have bribery. They have lawlessness," Phat said. "A murderer can buy his way out."

Phat thanked Up With Donut customers for their loyalty and support.

"My second homeland has given me an opportunity to reach out to my first homeland," Phat said. "The people in our community and our customers have supported us so we can reach out."

- The East Oregonian originated this report.