“It was the next morning when I realized I had not seen the little girl or her family again. That remains true to this day. I would like to believe she was taken to a country with her family and grew up to be someone with her own family and a career. We all deserve a chance at life. I hope she got hers.”
In this way begins Sok-Khieng Lim Hardy’s memoir as she describes how her family fled from Cambodia to Thailand by boat. She writes in the voice of a stranger rescuing her after she fell into the water from their overcrowded fishing boat.
“I was so little that I do not have the same memories as my two older sisters. I can’t honestly say that I remember that boat moment. My parents have told me about it, but some of the different people in my life who I tried to Americanize myself with did not even know that I was a refugee. It wasn’t until my wedding reception that my father told that story about me falling off a boat. Then all these people knew, so that made me more reflective and made me want to study the journey of how we got here.”
In 1978, her family left their village to escape the Khmer Rouge when she was three years old, along with over 30,000 Cambodians who fled to improvised camps in eastern Thailand. After arriving in Thailand, her family was taken to a nearby Red Cross camp. They were sent to live with a church in Oregon along with five other members of their village. Her memoir reflects on her experiences growing up as a refugee and first-generation immigrant in a new country.
“I’m reminded of that on a daily basis. That prompted me then to leave something behind for my kids to get a sense of my journey, should I have something happen to me that was sudden as well. I realized that if I wanted to leave my kids something and let them know about me, now is the time to get started.”
Today, Lim Hardy is a partner at the law firm of Rush, Hannula, Harkins, & Kyler in Tacoma, Washington and the mother of two children. Her book Present for a Purpose: Surviving the Genocide of Cambodia to Thriving in America follows her from early childhood to her law career and starting her own family. Writing together with her co-author Maribeth Slovasky, she published her book this April.
Lim Hardy spoke with me about her experiences writing her memoir. This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.
What inspired her to write her story?
When Lim Hardy describes how her memoir came to be, she dedicates it to her children.
“The theme that I wanted to come out of that story is finding a medium between knowing from the outside that you look different and celebrating those parts of your life. I wanted my kids to understand that I made mistakes along the way. For a very long time, I tried to shut out being Asian. I tried to shut out the Cambodian. I tried to shut out being a refugee because I was embarrassed about it. I couldn’t even say I was ashamed of it because I don’t even think I know what being ashamed of it was growing up. I just knew it was different and I didn’t want to be different. I wanted to fit in with my friends, I wanted them to accept me as if I was their equal – in other words, that I was born here. I wanted them to understand that it’s okay to have those two separate worlds.”
What brought her to practicing immigration law?
After graduating from law school in 2000, Lim Hardy began working at a law firm, but she didn’t find much joy in corporate law.
“I ended up with a firm just doing the same thing, and it really wasn’t until 2005 that I took on a pro bono case. It was an asylum case, and it involved a woman, and it was female genital mutilation (FGM). At that time, they did not recognize young women who had had FGM done to them as a member of a protected group. We lost at the trial court level, and then we appealed it to go to the Board of Immigration Appeals, then we lost on that and appealed it to the Ninth Circuit. The Ninth Circuit had about three or four FGM cases all throughout different states, like California, Arizona, and Washington, and ours was one of them. It was maybe, 2006 or 2007 that the Ninth Circuit came out with an opinion and basically said, yes, females who have endured this FGM procedure are a member of a protected group. And so, the client won. It was a big moment for me. At that time, I realized this is why I went to law school – helping people and making a difference in someone’s life.”
Working on this case motivated her to transition and build her immigration practice. She found her calling in personal injury cases, working with clients during some of the most difficult times of their lives.
“A lot of my immigrant clients when they would get into motor vehicle collisions or got injured in the medical negligence type of case, they never thought they could ever file a claim because they weren’t a U.S. citizen yet. Or if they were a U.S. citizen, they didn’t want to make waves.”
Practicing immigration law during both the Obama and Trump administrations forced Lim Hardy to reflect on how much immigration enforcement policies had changed. She examines her own experiences with racism practicing law. One chapter recounts a memory of being pulled over by state patrol while driving and being asked for her proof of citizenship.
“I was so infuriated and scared because I was thinking that if I hadn’t had my passport in my purse, there was no way I could show the guy I had legal status to be in the U.S. Not many citizens would know that they could be questioned about their status, let alone show proof as such,” she writes. “It was another reminder to me what a divisive world we were living in under the current government. People clearly have their racist ideology exhibited without fear or embarrassment.”
What was their writing process like?
To finish her memoir, Lim Hardy worked with Maribeth Slovasky, a published author and teacher, after meeting through a shared colleague.
“It ends up being hard to find a work-life balance. I knew that I couldn’t do it all myself and my mind was so scatterbrained. I reached out to Maribeth and we met and had a great connection. We had either four or five actual face-to-face sessions, just talking about different things and reflecting on different things. From that, Maribeth took out a timeline of different moments in my life or stories from my life, and essentially put it together.”
Lim Hardy doesn’t describe herself as a traditional writer, but while working with Slovasky, she wrote several chapters and revised them with her.
“There’s a routine that we had to put [my kids] to bed, and I fall asleep at about 9:30 or 10:00 PM, but then I’d wake up at like 2 AM, and so that was when I started doing a lot of the typing. That was when my mind started to be reflective because everything was just quiet – no phone was ringing, nobody coming to the office. No husband lecturing and no kid was jumping on me. That was the best time for when I was able to do some of the writing.”
What does she hope that readers will take away from her book and the stories in it?
“I hope that people who have got crazy schedules like me think that they, too, can write a book. We all have stories to tell and then finding the time to say, ‘I’m going to do it. I’m going to put these stories in writing,’ so people, in the future or even in the present can read this and just know about me. That’s what I want everybody to be able to do. That’s why it’s so important to share these stories because we can come from different backgrounds. We come from different political points of view, but there is a commonality in experiences we have in our lives. It brings us together.”
Read more about Lim Hardy’s memoir, Present for a Purpose: Surviving the Genocide of Cambodia to Thriving in America, here.
Reema Saleh is a former Head Creative Editor at The Overseas Dispatch. Originally from South Carolina, she is currently pursuing her Master of Public Policy at the University of Chicago. She was awarded a Boren Scholarship for Arabic language studies. She is a fiction writer, poet, and digital media producer. Her published writing and other work can be found here.