ROCHESTER – When Chung Eang Lip was 7, his father took him to the market in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and abandoned him.
For three days, Lip wandered the city’s streets, hungry and calling for his mother. Lip’s last memory from the ordeal was waking up and seeing his mom hovering over him.
“I was really sick. I didn’t have anything to eat for those three days. I only remember that when I opened my eyes, I saw my mom and that’s all,” said Lip, whose mom took him back to their rural home.
By 13, both of Lip’s parents were dead, and he was largely on his own, living with an older brother. What most people regard as normal family life — or what passed for it in Lip’s life — was largely a thing of the past.
Or so he thought.
Six years later, Lip, who goes by Chuill, is living an American life he hardly imagined possible. He has American parents who care for and love him and a brood of siblings who make life interesting. He is a student at Rochester Community and Technical College (RCTC).
It’s not an everyday event when a family halfway around the world, from Wanamingo, Minn., tries to “adopt” a 16-year-old.
But then Chuill, says Pastor Nick Fisher-Broin, who, along with his wife, Cindy, made that decision two years ago, is no ordinary person.
Chuill’s journey to the United States began two years ago when a group of RCTC staff and students arrived in Cambodia for a cross-cultural exchange. The service trip is a regular event organized by RCTC speech teacher Lori Halverson-Wente. Since Fisher-Broin’s son, Noah, was going on the trip, the pastor was asked to come along as a sort of chaperon.
Chuill served as one of the interpreters, helping the RCTC group navigate a foreign land. Fisher-Broin remembers him as a kid “with really skinny legs” who had a special way with people.
As the trip progressed and Fisher-Broin learned more about their interpreter, the more impressed he became. It was not just the hardships that he had endured, but the way Chuill had dealt with those life traumas. There seemed to be no bitterness, no hardness in his personality. Here was a youth who maintained a cheerful and optimistic outlook despite having many reasons not to.
“The word is resilience. When I first met him, despite what obviously had been a lot of hardship — losing both his parents, living on his own pretty much — he didn’t seem to let that drag him down. He seemed to find a way to put his best foot forward,” Fisher-Broin said.
The idea of helping Chuill come to the United States wasn’t on anybody’s radar at the time, although a crisis in Chuill’s life would later bring about that conversation. After returning home from Cambodia, Fisher-Broin and his wife maintained near-daily contact with Chuill through Facebook.
Then, suddenly, Chuill’s communications stopped, and for a week, the Fisher-Broins heard nothing. When Chuill returned to Facebook, they learned from him that he had been sick.
Chuill, laid low by a high fever, had hepatitis. Chuill’s mother had died of complications from hepatitis B, and he was born with it. Until then he had never suffered any serious symptoms from it. When Chuill returned online and the Fisher-Broins found out what had happened, they began their own research.
Hepatitis B, a virus that infects the liver, is mostly a treatable, short-term disease. But it can become chronic, cause liver damage and result in death. Good nutrition is key in battling it, and that is where the problem lay. Chuill was living on a food budget of $20 per month.
Nick and Cindy Fisher-Broin are pastors of Spring Garden Lutheran Church near Cannon Falls. They had come from somewhat large families themselves and had four children of their own: Josiah, Noah, Jonah and Emma. Emma, now a teenager, was adopted when she was 13 months old. They felt there was room to spare.
At first, the Fisher-Broins tried sending money to Chuill, so he could buy more protein-enriched food. But their thoughts eventually turned to a more-permanent solution.
“The long-term ramifications [of his virus were] like his mom, which is you reach your 30s or 40s and then you die,” Fisher-Broin said. “By this time, I realized that Chuill was pretty special. I could tell that he was bright, and I knew he had a huge potential for his life — if he had an opportunity.”
So the Fisher-Broins made their offer: Would Chuill be interested in coming to the United States if there was a way to arrange it? For Chuill, it wasn’t just the opportunity to come to America or study at an American college that enticed him, although those were definite pluses. It was a chance to have a family.
“I was kind of really excited,”’ Chuill said. “At least, there’s people who want me and be part of them.”
But there was a major obstacle. An adoption was ruled out as a possibility because Cambodia is not a part of the Hague Convention on International Adoptions. And once Chuill turned 18, he would have become ineligible anyway, given the yearslong process involved.
But as the couple continued their research, a pathway appeared to open up when their focus turned to the law covering F1 student visas. Such visas are more commonly linked with foreign college students, but a less well-known provision exists for high school students as well.
The catch was that high schools have to be authorized to accept foreign students under a designation established by the Department of Homeland Security. The challenge was finding a school around the Fisher-Broin’s neighborhood that had such a designation. Cannon Falls, their son Jonah’s school district, lacked such certification. So did nearby Northfield. But when they looked to Kenyon-Wanamingo — a district they were a part of — they were surprised to learn that it had it.
“About seven years ago, someone looked into the possibility of bringing their niece or nephew from Norway, so the school at that time did the paperwork to do the certification,” Fisher-Broin said.
Whether true or not, a commonly held belief is that when a foreign national shows up at a U.S. embassy for an interview, a decision whether that person gets a visa or not is usually made within 10 seconds of the interview.
When Chuill showed up for his embassy interview in Phnom Penh, his hopefulness sank. As many as 35 other people were there waiting for interviews; they were people like him hoping to get the same ticket to America as he was. And, in what appeared to be a bad omen, Chuill was among the last to be interviewed.
“I didn’t expect that I would get the visa,” he said.
But the U.S. official conducting the interview asked Chuill only a handful of questions, winding up the talk with a simple, “God bless you.” He told Chuill to come back in two days and pick up his visa.
“I wasn’t sure what he was actually saying — I get a visa — because I asked him back, ‘are you sure I get a visa?’ And he just said, ‘just come back in two days.’ ”
Now an RCTC student, Chuill works nearly from morning until night on his studies. He said he works to succeed in school and life, but also to put himself in a position to help others as he has been helped.
“When I was in Cambodia, I wasn’t hoping that I would have what I have now,” he said. “I think there is a reason for it. So my hope is that I’ll help other people, too, when I have the ability to do so.”