Mrs. Sotie Heidt, wife of US Ambassador to Cambodia, Mr. Bill Heidt, on Feb 23, 2016. (Hean Socheata/VOA Khmer)
Mrs. Sotie Heidt, wife of US Ambassador to Cambodia, Mr. Bill Heidt, on Feb 23, 2016. (Hean Socheata/VOA Khmer)

PHNOM PENH - For the first time, the wife of the U.S. ambassador to Cambodia is herself a Cambodian.

Sotie Heidt, whose family name is Kenmano, fled the Khmer Rouge in the 1980s and resettled in the United States.

Sotie says she has never forgotten her homeland, where she plans to help young Cambodian women be successful. By connecting young women with accomplished female mentors, she hopes to give them opportunities to grow professionally.

"Since I have been here, I have talked to younger female students on how to be successful in life. However, I also have been impressed that there are many successful people. Not just ‘oknha,’" she said, using a government-sanctioned title for elite professionals and philanthropists meant to confer honor and prestige. "There are also many other successful business [women], or those who work in the ministries, who feel proud to work in those jobs."

Saying there are too few channels to connect young women to older, successful women, Sotie hopes to create those connections.

She plans to encourage young women to stay in school and reduce Cambodia's high school dropout rate of around 25 percent, all part of an effort to help the country shed its dark past and develop a vision going forward.

"I think it’s been a long time already," she said. "Neither the internationals or Cambodians need to mention genocide whenever they talk about Cambodia," she said. Rather, she would like Cambodia to be known for its beauty, tourism and economic opportunities.

Pursuing education

Sotie lost both parents and other relatives to the communist regime, and when she left the refugee camp on the border, she decided she would pursue higher education.

"When my parents were alive, they always said that only the well-educated [who] can get themselves out of difficulty, no matter what," Heidt told VOA Khmer in an interview.

After one year in the U.S., she enrolled at Evergreen State College, in the northwest state of Washington, and later graduated from Cornell University with a master’s degree. In 1997, she moved back to Cambodia, where she met her husband, William Heidt, an embassy employee.

The couple returned to Cambodia when William began his mission as ambassador in 2015.

This report was produced in collaboration with VOA's Khmer Service.