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Laotian-born Police Corporal Guards Washington Bureau


The word American has come to denote persons of every conceivable race, color and religion who live in the United States and feel at home here. In this edition of New American Voices, you'll meet a young American, Sonepheth Sombat who came to this country from Laos as a child, and now guards the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Washington, where U.S. paper currency is produced.

Sonepheth Sombat, a slender, muscular, amiable young man with a dark crew cut, is a police corporal on the security detail of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in the center of Washington, D.C. Billions of dollars worth of currency are produced here each year, as well as postage stamps and various security documents.

"The job title is police work, but it's more security - keeping the Bureau safe, keeping the building and the property safe, and keeping the employees honest," Corporal Sombat explains. "We have the authority to detain and make arrests, we carry guns, but on a day-to-day basis it's pretty much protecting the building. The main mission of the Bureau of Police is to protect the Bureau, the products, and the employees."

In his four years on the job, he hasn't yet apprehended anyone carrying freshly-printed dollars, or what he calls 'the products', out of the building -- but he has on occasion confiscated cameras, which are strictly forbidden on the premises.

Sonepheth Sombat was eight years old when he came to the United States in 1986. After fleeing Laos, his family spent months in a refugee camp in Thailand and then in a transitional camp in the Philippines. Because his father had been a soldier fighting the communists, Mr. Sombat says, the family was granted political asylum in the United States, and settled in the Washington DC area. Young Sonepheth, who had tended cattle among the hills and rice paddies of tropical central Laos, was struck by the contrast.

"It was cold!" he recalls. "Luckily, we got winter coats. But it was different, I mean, just to see the trees, the planes, the toilets, everything. It was just new. I guess every time I think back, it's just - how far I've gone, how far I came from out in the woods to a more civilized, more technologically advanced life."

School in the new country posed no problem for the boy from Laos. Sonepheth spent his first two or three years in English for Speakers of Other Languages classes. There were many Asian children - Cambodians, Vietnamese - in the school he attended, so he remembers his early years here as being carefree and fun. The adjustment was harder for his parents, he says. Although they immediately went to work at odd jobs, and to night classes to learn English, his mother is still not comfortable in the language.

Both his parents still work hard as janitors in local public schools, but Mr. Sombat says they never for a minute regretted coming to the United States. "It was a good move for them. I mean, they wanted the opportunity for their kids, myself and my brother and sister, to have a better life," he says. "So they never regret leaving. But every time we talk about retirement, they want to go back there to retire. But at the same time, now they're accustomed to the advancement, the TV and all that stuff, they don't want to leave, to go and stay there permanently."

Sonepheth Sombat himself is losing his connection with his Laotian roots, he says -- even with the language. Speaking with his parents and siblings, he finds himself forgetting the Lao words and substituting English ones. His wife, whom he met at the University of Maryland, where he was studying for his degree in criminal justice, is Caucasian, so they speak English at home.

Mr. Sombat says that while he feels totally American, for other people he somehow remains an immigrant. "I think in America it's hard," he observes. "I mean, I thought about this. And the prospect of having kids… It's just that no matter how many generations I'm here, or my kids, you know, as long as we have the features of being an outsider, of being non-white, we still can be considered not American. We might be Asian-American, or I guess my kids will just be mixed American - but I don't know whether we will be fully accepted, because we're different. When you look at us, we look different."

Nevertheless, Mr. Sombat admits that throughout his education and police force training, as well as on the job, he never felt that he was discriminated against or treated differently. He can, however, point to subtle slights, like having to wait just a bit longer before being seated at a restaurant. But he stresses that in America he faces no obstacles to leading the kind of life he chooses. He and his wife enjoy the outdoors, often hiking in the near-by Shenandoah mountains of Virginia with their two dogs. They also foster homeless dogs: they take care of them for an animal rescue organization until a permanent home is found. They look forward to having children.

All in all, acording to Sonepheth Sombat, life is good. "I'm pretty satisfied with my life the way it is now," he says. "I would like to have more financial freedom - but at the same time, personally I'm not 100% goal-oriented. I get distracted by the little stuff in life. Instead of saving my money for buying a new house, you know, I might just save up a little bit and buy a new motorcycle, or something small that takes away from the big goal in life. My life goal changes day to day, but I think it's just to enjoy life," says the young, Laotian-born American security officer, adding, "In America you have the freedom to enjoy more, and you have the knowledge that there's more to life than just going to work."

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