Cambodian Elder Van Sar has died at the age of 83, leaving a legacy of community service

Written by Samantha Buck
Northwest Asia Weekly

Van Sar on July 4, 2023 at Camano Island State Park, where the family has celebrated the holiday for decades. (Courtesy: Sarado Fan)

Local Cambodian elder and leader Van Sar passed away on August 31, leaving a legacy of service to his community. Sar, who settled in Lynwood in 1975 after he and his family escaped the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, was 83 and died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

He dedicated his life to helping the Cambodian community in Washington, across the country, and in Cambodia. Sarr was responsible for founding and leading several Cambodian organizations in Washington, including the Khmer Alliance Foundation, the Center for Cambodian Studies, and the US-Cambodian Friendship Foundation. His dedication to serving others also extended beyond the Cambodian community. Before his retirement in 2005, Sarr worked for the Refugee Assistance Program of the Washington Department of Social and Health Services.

“Bo (Uncle) Van Sar was involved in 90 percent of all the Cambodian American organizations that were established in Washington and in a few other states,” said Pakon Sen, a co-founder of the Cambodian American Community Council of Washington (CACCWA). “Our community has lost a great leader and so much history about the Khmer people who live here in Washington.”

Helping the Cambodian community was very important to Sar, even during the advanced stages of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis that made it difficult for him to speak and he was in poor condition. His son, Sarado Phan, said he had organized a community event that would be held at his home — just a few weeks before his death. . This act of helping others is something his father hoped he wouldn’t die with, Van said.

“He would like people to continue his legacy of community work,” Phan said.

Sar’s career in public service began in Cambodia, where he served in the government and served as Minister of National Security, before Pol Pot’s regime took control of the country.

Bill Ong, CACCWA’s other co-founder, has worked with Sar in the community since 1979, and said that while Sar was the former highest-ranking member of the Cambodian Cabinet in Washington, he rarely spoke about it.

“He was my closest advisor in the formation of the Seattle-Sihanoukville Sister City Association and the Cambodian American Community Council in Washington,” Ong said. “He did a lot for the Khmer community in Washington, but he was very humble and never took credit.”

Van Sar as a young man loved fishing (Courtesy: Sarado Van)

When the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge in April 1975, Sar, his five children and his sister fled. While Sar was briefly separated from his family, they were reunited at U-Tapao refugee camp in Thailand. They were also separated from Saar’s wife, who they later learned had died in 1978. The family first arrived at Camp Pendleton in California before settling permanently in Washington within a few months.

Once he was able, Sarr did what he could to help his fellow displaced Cambodians. Van remembers those early days in Lynwood where his father would work odd jobs to earn money and use that money to buy a car. The car cost $200 and none of its doors had been opened, but Sarr got a lot out of it, and not just for his family. Phan, who was 11 when they first arrived in the United States, said his father used the car to help the few other Cambodian families who had also settled in the area.

“Getting them places, doctor visits, teaching them to drive,” Van said of helping his father. From that point on, Phan said his father helped sponsor several Cambodians to immigrate to Washington, “a lot of them, he didn’t even know.”

One of Van’s strongest memories of his father also involves driving. When he was 13 or 14, Van was in the car with his father; They were driving home, just the two of them. During their trip, Van spots a city worker sweeping the sidewalk. Saar noticed Van watching the worker and told him, “There are no stupid jobs, only stupid people,” a lesson in respecting people from all walks of life. This was a lesson Sarr modeled as Van said his father got along with him and was able to relate to all the people he met.

Saar’s community outreach extended beyond bringing people in from Cambodia, helping them find services and resources, and mentoring them. Fan said his father also loved social gatherings. Their family was one of the first Cambodian families in the area to buy a home, so they hosted birthdays and holiday get-togethers during Thanksgiving and Christmas for their extended family and friends. Sar also organizes Cambodian New Year events every April for the community so people can celebrate together.

“He enjoyed life. He laughed a lot,” Phan said. “He always carried the sadness of the Khmer people, while living a life full of joy.”

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