Twenty-eight years ago, Vernon’s Mission Hill Elementary welcomed a new Grade 1 student named On Ouchs. He spoke no English. The little boy was in culture shock.
Born in a refugee camp in Thailand, Ouchs’ childhood had consisted of foraging for fruit or anything else he could possibly sell. He put in long days of child labour under an unforgiving sun to help support his family of six. No school or playtime for him. Barely subsisting, Ouchs and his family endured years of squalor and deprivation in the camp’s chicken coop conditions.
Ouchs’ parents, Ath and Loeung, had narrowly escaped the killing fields of Cambodia in 1979. Ath’s flight over the border had been especially harrowing. Breaking out of a Khmer Rouge concentration camp, he had snuck through jungles and minefields and over mountains for three months while on the verge of starvation.
A family without a country, the Ouchses applied for sanctuary in Australia, New Zealand, Japan, the U.K., and the United States. Each time they were denied. Only Canada saw value in the uneducated but resilient, hard-working, and devoted family. Finally, after nearly a decade in a refugee camp, the Ouchses found a home in Vernon.
A team of local volunteers came together to help the family “settle and learn the language and ways of Canada,” recalls their sponsoring agent, Arne Sahlen. The new residents would not be dependent for long. With Ath working in sawmills and Loeung employed in restaurants, the Ouchses were able to buy their own house within a few years.
While Ouchs was now free to be a kid, he had new challenges to face.
“It was a struggle,” he remembers. “We were seen as different.” Bit by bit Ouchs built up his English language skills at school while absorbing the jabs and taunts of bullies.
He focused on his studies, and with some encouragement, he began to believe he had something to offer his community and the world.
“My Grade 6/7 teacher, Mr. Phillips, really pushed me to do what I do today,” said Ouchs, owner/operator of the popular Vernon eatery The Rice Box.
In 2010 Ouchs started the Wokathon fundraiser “as a way for me to remind me and my family where we came from, and a way for us to give back to the community.”
Eight Wokathons later, the Ouchs family has raised more than $75,000 for Vernon’s hospital, the Cambodia Support Group, and the NONA Child Development Centre, which helps more than 700 children with special needs each year.
Some of those are Mission Hill kids. The elementary school is also made up of many immigrants and ELL learners as well as recent refugees from Syria and Myanmar. The school’s pride in diversity is reflected in its multicultural mural, painted by Vernon artist Michelle Loughery in 2004, many years after Ouchs left.
On May 14, Ouchs returned and was escorted to the gymnasium by an admiring group of Grade 5/6 students. Their class had voted to induct the Ouchs family into the Mission Hill Hall of Fame.
The shrine’s mission is to recognize “shining examples in our community: people who develop their abilities to help society…people who advance values that are important to us all, like fairness, respect, perseverance, and cooperation.”
Reflects Sahlen: “This family is way up on top of a wonderful heap of people in terms of their dedication and caring and love for people and eagerness to help both at home and around the world.”
“We are happy to welcome the Ouchs family to our assembly today,” announced Grade 6 student Cadence Ritums.
Student leaders Sakshat Pokhriyal, Devon Stoddard, Harley Taylor, and Jasmin Zelaya took turns recounting the Ouchs’ uplifting story to the assembled students and staff.
“The Ouchs family survived war, forced labour, hunger, and many years of desperation in a refugee camp,” Joban Panag, 11, reiterated. “We are glad that Canada gave them a new life here.”
Continued 10-year-old Tajveer Mann: “Through hard work, they have become model citizens with great community spirit, showing how new Canadians can make our country a better place.”
With that, the Ouchses joined a distinguished list of Vernonites — Larry Kwong, Loughery, Sonja Gaudet, and Josh Dueck — in the Mission Hill Hall of Fame.
On Ouchs accepted a plaque designed by Blair Peden, and his thoughts turned back to Grade 1. The feelings of being picked on as a kid don’t leave. But Ouchs is glad to see how some perceptions have changed. He shared how a few of his grade-school tormentors have since approached him to apologize and offer congratulations on his success in business and philanthropy.
To the hundreds gathered in the gym, Ouchs called for more kindness. Addressing his first school, he was struck again by gratitude.
“Vernon changed a family’s life forever, and our family will never forget that,” said Ouchs. For the Mission Hill community, it was a powerful lesson in citizenship.
Inspired by the Ouchses, Grade 5 students Victoria Rush and Harley Taylor raised $37 for NONA with a lemonade stand. They and their classmates then held a Bakeathon on May 16, which brought in $380 for NONA and the Cambodia Support Group.
“Super amazing,” applauded Ouchs. “You guys are so awesome.”