Every CIA officer has a unique path to the Agency. In honor of Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month, CIA.gov is highlighting Tim, a Cambodian American CIA officer who had a particularly unique—and remarkable—journey to the CIA.
“I used to have a really fun time watching water buffalos—I used to ride them with my oldest brother,” Tim recalls of his childhood growing up in a small town in rural Cambodia. Tim lived near the Angkor Wat temple, where his father was mayor. He also remembers running around in the jungle with his friends, cutting down banana trees and using them to float, and catching and cooking lizards.
However, this all came to an end when Tim was about five-years-old, when the Khmer Rouge came to power in Cambodia in 1975. As a government official, Tim’s father had to flee the country to avoid execution. The rest of Tim’s family—including his mother, one older brother, and three older sisters—were put in different concentration camps based on age. Because of Tim’s young age, he was able to stay in a camp with his mother. Conditions in the camps were tough and the residents were starved, being fed only small pots of rice soup.
Because Tim was so young, his recollection of his time in the concentration camp is vague, but certain images—a woman hanged from a tree, a pool of water filled with dead bodies—have stayed with him over the years. Tim and his mother were on the camp’s execution list but she was somehow able to get them both off of it, and he still does not know how she did it. His older brother, in a different camp, was executed by the Khmer Rouge. During this period, over one million Cambodians died of overwork, disease, starvation, or genocide. Tim’s grandmother died of starvation and the majority of his extended family was killed.
Journey to America
Around 1979, Tim’s father, who was living in Leesburg, Virginia, found out that his wife, daughters, and one son were still alive. He sent money to Cambodia and hired people to extract them from the country. Tim recalls that they snuck out of the camps in the dead of night, and escaped through the mountains, dodging booby traps and landmines. Tim and his family would hide when they saw troops. Eventually the family safely arrived at a Thai refugee camp. They were only in Thailand for a short time, moving from camp to camp, until they were able to come to the United States. They reunited with Tim’s father at the airport and settled into an apartment in Leesburg.
“I always looked to my dad as a role model,” Tim said. “I am what I am because of what I saw in him… It was amazing how he was able to support us.” Tim’s father went from being a mayor in Cambodia to the United States, where he took jobs washing dishes or doing manual labor for very little pay. “Emotionally, I can’t imagine how difficult that would be,” Tim said.
"I always looked to my dad as a role model. I am what I am because of what I saw in him."
Though Tim experienced culture shock—particularly when tasting his first American soda—and had to learn English, he was able to assimilate fairly quickly. He eventually went to Brigham Young University and later received his Masters in Information Technology—making him the first in his family to go to college. Tim describes himself as lucky, despite facing these harrowing experiences, because he was a young child when he did.
Path to the CIA
Tim worked in the private sector for several years before a friend who worked for the Agency encouraged him to apply. He has now been at the CIA for seven years and is currently working in computer systems management in the Office of the Chief Information Officer.
“This is the best,” Tim said of his Agency employment. “I just love this place because it is all about mission.”
In addition to his day job, Tim has become a hiring advisor for the Recruitment Center, and says he tells prospective employees, particularly those who are originally from other countries, “This is the opportunity for us to give back to a country that has given us so much… this is how I give back; I love the mission, and I leave at the end of the day and know that I did something.”