Oct 01, 2016
By Kate Heartfield

Being uprooted, finding her place

Sopari Sor has learned to create community wherever she goes

Teckles Photography Inc.

Sopari Sor doesn’t remember the refugee camp on the border of Cambodia and Thailand where she was born. Now, the 23-year-old is a new RN, a recent graduate of Trinity Western University (TWU) in Langley, B.C. She says she will return someday to her native Cambodia to help people who feel as disconnected and alone as she once did.

The Khmer Rouge genocide and the subsequent Vietnamese invasion caused many Cambodians, including Sor’s family, to flee for their lives. When Sor was a year old, the refugee camps closed. Her father left two years later and her mother went off to find work, leaving her and her brother with their grandmother in a remote village.

They had only rice to eat. Sor wanted to quit school so she could spend more time earning money selling rice cakes on the street, but her grandmother insisted she get a decent education.

That meant Sor had to leave the village. At eight, she was sent to Phnom Penh, where she would spend the rest of her childhood with an aunt and other relatives she had never met. Being uprooted hit her hard.

“I think I became a little bit depressed,” she recalls. “There was this overwhelming sadness. I didn’t know how to process that emotion, so I just went quiet.”

Drawing on that experience would help her much later in life in building therapeutic relationships at a group home for women living with substance abuse and mental illness, where she did a community clinical placement. “I could see that what is happening to the person right now is not the result of something that recently happened but is rooted in their background — how they were born, how they were raised and how they process and adjust to everything that happens to them.”

In her teens, she attended the English-language Logos International School. During the summers, she volunteered as a coordinator and interpreter for visiting international medical teams. Inspired by their efforts to improve access to health care in various parts of her country, she started thinking about a health-care career.

Some of her teachers, who had connections to TWU, encouraged her to apply for a scholarship for international students with extreme needs. Her application was successful, and she arrived in Canada in 2011 to study at TWU. She applied and was accepted to the nursing program in 2012.

Sor financed her studies with a combination of scholarships and part-time jobs, which included student painter, employed student nurse at Langley Memorial Hospital and lab assistant at the nursing school.

More difficult for her was having to explain her life experiences to Canadians who didn’t know anything about Cambodia and lacking knowledge of pop culture touchstones that would have helped her connect with her peers. It was another big adjustment, and she felt disconnected and homesick once again. As well, she says, “trying to understand the culture of nursing was really challenging, because nursing has its own culture, its own language and professionalism.”

Sor says it was especially painful that she was not able to travel to Cambodia when her grandmother died in 2012. A year later, while on a clinical placement at a residence for seniors, she found ways to honour this woman who had been so important to her. She listened to their stories and, in turn, told them about her grandmother. Sor says she comes from a culture in which family members care for elders, so she felt a lot of sympathy for elderly patients who had little contact with their families.

Gradually, Canada began to feel like home — or, at least, one of her homes. Sor says TWU was the perfect place to complete her nursing education. The small campus meant it was easier for her to get to know people, and she felt she could go to her professors for help with anything. She was soon helping other students adjust to life in Canada, working for the international student program on campus.

Sor plans to become a Canadian citizen. For now, she has a three-year work permit and hopes to find employment in an Abbotsford hospital, preferably in a medical or surgical ward. Her goal is to become a nurse practitioner, and she knows she will first need to develop a wide range of skills.

Once the three years are up, she and her new husband, a Canadian, want to spend some time in Cambodia. “Between the two of us — he’s a teacher — I feel like we could do a lot of good in Cambodia in the areas of education and nursing.”

One of the things she says she wants to do there is support women who have been sexually trafficked. She met women who worked in Phnom Penh’s red light district; access to health care for the poor and vulnerable in Cambodia is limited, she says.

“I feel like I’ve been given this amazing opportunity and privilege to pursue higher education,” Sor says. “I want to give back.”

10 questions with Sopari Sor

What is one word you would use to describe yourself?

If you could change anything about yourself, what would it be?
I’d like to have a better singing voice

What are you most proud of having accomplished?
Graduating from nursing school

What is one thing about you that people would be surprised to learn?
I knew how to read Khmer Sanskrit at age six

“If I had more free time, I would...”
Learn another language

Where did you go on your last vacation?
New York City

Name one place in the world you’d most like to visit.
Rome or Paris (I can’t decide, probably both)

What was the last good book you read? 
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. I’m reading it for the third time

What was the best piece of career advice you’ve received?
Learn from everyone

Name one change you would like to make to the health system.
Managers should get more input from RNs before implementing changes on the floor

Kate Heartfield is a freelance journalist in Ottawa.

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