More than 40 years ago, Tun Sovan arrived in the United States as a student.

When his homeland Cambodia plunged into war and chaos, Tun Sovan found shelter in the U.S. as a refugee and built a new life as an immigrant.

He worked for more than 35 years in federal and local government in the Washington area and participated in a long list of civic groups promoting the Buddhist faith, religious dialogue and immigrant affairs.

And, he met the Pope twice.

?The United States is special,? Tun Sovan said, referring to how the U.S. was built by immigrants based upon the principles of freedom, granting shelter, and providing opportunity.

Now in his mid-70s and still an active community leader, Tun Sovan said he believes the U.S. continues to be a ?country of opportunity.? It must uphold its founding principle as shelter for refugees and exiles, he said.

Tun Sovan (center) with his mother, sisters and brother in law at Pochentong International Airport in 1962, before leaving for the U.S. (Photo courtesy of Tun Sovan)

Immigration has emerged as a defining and divisive issue in the 2016 presidential race.

Critics say the Obama administration?s plan to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees by October 1 could allow terrorists to enter with genuine refugees.

As a refugee during Cambodia?s civil war, and now a U.S. citizen of 40 years, Tun Sovan understands the debate firsthand.

He said he agrees that the government must take action against terrorists, but those actions should not overshadow the country?s long history of helping refugees and welcoming immigrants.

The U.S. developed as an immigrant nation, Tun Sovan said.

Speaking at a Cambodian Buddhist temple in Maryland where he volunteers, Tun Sovan shared a story of antipathy toward Cambodian refugees decades ago in Virginia.

Efforts by the local Cambodian community to establish a Buddhist temple were being blocked. A local woman, Tun Sovan said, was blunt in her opposition to the temple, saying she didn?t want immigrants in her area.

Tun Sovan reminded the woman that her family had been immigrants, too, and the value of immigrants' contribution to the US must not be forgotten or underestimated.

Tun Sovan received a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Tennessee in 1979. He later worked with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a federal agency in charge of investigating discrimination in employment.

From left to right: Tun Sovan, Martin J. O'Malley,
Ngor Yok Bean (left), Martin J. O'Malley, then-governor of Maryland, and Tun Sovan in 2012 at the Maryland Governor's Residence. (Photo courtesy: Tun Sovan)

He now devotes himself to helping Cambodians and other refugees to the U.S., and promoting understanding between faiths. He is president of the Cambodian Buddhist Society in Maryland, vice president of the Washington Buddhist Network, and founding member of the International Buddhist Association of America. He is also a member of the board of directors of the Interfaith Conference of metropolitan Washington.

In June 2015, Pope Francis invited him to participate in a Buddhist-Catholic dialogue at the Vatican. He met the Pope again during the papal visit to America a few months later.

Schanley Kuch, a Cambodian resident of Maryland, said Tun Sovan is well known for his service to the diaspora, particularly his efforts to unify the different Cambodian communities in the U.S.

?He pays attention to the needs of the people and he serves the culture,? Schanly Kuch said.

There is still one more thing Tun Sovan hopes to achieve. He would like to see a Buddhist ceremony held at the White House, as other religions have been honored.

Each year, Tun Sovan said, President Obama has sent a letter to Buddhist associations to mark international Visak Bochea Day, which celebrates the birth, death and enlightenment of the Buddha.

?But we don?t want only that, we want to hold the ceremony in the White House,? he said.


This story was reported by VOA's Khmer service and appeared on VOA News.