Rasy An was about 9 when the Khmer Rouge sent him to a work camp. “I still have scars on my hand,” he says. “I told my daughter: This is something I had to do to survive, because if you couldn’t work they didn’t keep you alive.”
After the Khmer’s fall, An and his reunited, surviving family — his mother and one brother — resettled in California with an uncle, a man who had swum to a U.S. military ship in the Mekong River to escape execution. In 1985 An moved to Lowell, where his new stepfather, Bunrith Lach, had seen a storefront for sale. An was starting high school. “We were in survival mode. That’s all we knew. We took on something we knew nothing about,” he says. “It worked out.”
We were in survival mode. That’s all we knew. We took on something we knew nothing about. It worked out.
Pailin Asian Supermarket would become the first grocer to offer native food to Lowell’s growing Cambodian population, and it became a gathering place. Lach became a community leader. Today Pailin Plaza has a restaurant, a function hall, a supermarket, and a music store.
Meanwhile, the children of the killing fields managed to get an education in America, something that almost amazes An. He has an MBA and works as a real estate broker for Pailin Realty. His wife is a pharmacist. One sister-in-law is a doctor, another is also a pharmacist.
“During the Khmer Rouge they literally killed off all the educated people. The ones who didn’t have a strong educational background came to the United States and they worked really hard,” he says. “So much credit goes to the parents, because they’re not educated but they do their best to make sure their kids get the education.”
An has tried to use his education to give back to the community. He gave foreclosure prevention education and counseling for the Coalition for a Better Acre, and served as executive director of the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association. Now he helps people become homeowners.
“I always want to help clients understand that in the United States if you don’t work hard and have proper money management you’re not going to survive well,” he says. “Because it’s just not easy.”