A young Cambodian man has a new life with a new family in Minnesota.
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.