Life Coach For Immigrants

Interview with immigrant from Cambodia Nary Som Setzer.
Friend, do you ever feel like you wish your life was different? “Oh if I had it easier everything would have been better?”  I want to invite you to listen to the story of my guest, Nary Som Setzer.  Her family fled Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge. They traveled for 6 months by foot to Thailand. Hiding out in rain forest because the gorillas in the mountains and the Khmer Rouge soldiers were lining the land bordering between the two countries for escapes. 

Nary’s story is very interesting but it also will help to put your life into perspective. We are lucky you and me, and sometimes we need to be reminded of that. 

If you would like to contact Nary you can send her an email at: 

If you are an immigrant with a great story and you would like to share it along with the wisdom you have acquired through it, please reach out to me. My email is 

Episode #15 - Inspired story of a survivor.



Hi everyone, it’s Ewelina, I am a life coach for immigrants. And today I have a special special guest for you with an incredible story and she is going to share it with us. I have with me here today Nary. She is a real estate agent here in Sarasota Florida and she is originally from Cambodia. So she is going to share her story with us today and how did it happen that she ended up here, because the story is so interesting but I am also going to talk to her a little bit about her life overall and you know, what were the biggest struggles of being an immigrant here in the US. And today she is a very, very successful real estate agent in our area and we are gonna talk about that too right? And she is also very humble, we will see how much I can pull out of her. Welcome to the show, thank you so much for coming!

Nary: Thank you so much for having me. 

Ewelina: Absolutely, alright, so why don’t you tell us your story? How did you end up here? Like, first of all how did you end up in the US? 

Nary: In the US. Okay so, this is dating back to 1979 when my family came to the US.

And first of all I just want to thank you for the opportunity and time to share my story and hopefully help inspire other people out there that whatever goals you set or in life are achievable  based on your drive and how much you want it. 

But anyway, going back. My family came to the US in 1979. We came to a political asylum via several families who had sponsored us and brought us here to the US.  Originally we were not supposed to be coming to the US as we were supposed to go to Switzerland or France because we had sponsors there as well too. My family fled Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge which is a civil war. Which is in comparison to far much worst than Holocaust cause we’ve lost a lot, a lot of Cambodians, people during that time.

Ewelina: Please tell me about it, cause I know nothing about it. Nothing.

Nary: Basically we call it the Khmer Rouge… It’s the communist party that overtook our monarchy so overthrew the government, took over the country and turned the whole country upside down so turned it into a totalitarian country. Basically every citizen is working for the government, you don’t own property anymore. Our family property was confiscated and so now you work on your own land but anything you produce on your own land goes to the government and they ration the food to give to you. At some point in time they tried to overthrow the government. The Khmer Rouge and my family fled the country because they were going through a systematic execution of citizens possibly that are educated. You know, if they assume that you are not a 100% Cambodian, which we were Khmer descendants, which we were 100% Cambodian but my family was educated. My dad held a position in town, he was the town major so he was in line. Our family, we were in line for execution, so we fled, once we heard, we got the news. We fled by foot through rain forest, through jungle, through landmines, through everything so…

Ewelina: How long did you walk for?

Nary: You know I was little so I don’t know exactly how long our trip was and I would say about six months. 

Ewelina: Hold on, I thought you were talking about like a few days!

Nary: Oh, no! No, no, no because we are talking during our flight from Cambodia into the neighboring country which is Thailand, there are duration of time you are going back and forth and rerouting because you know… bear in mind that the whole field, the whole country is littered with landmines. So being able to get through that, to traverse through that rain forest and stuff like that, hiding out in rain forest because the gorillas in the mountains and the Khmer Rouge soldiers that were lining the land bordering between the two countries for escapes. So you know there are gorillas and bandits along the borders who are taking full advantage of people who are trying to flee for their lives and we were captured by these gorillas.  We were held captive and from what I think we were held captive by three gorillas probably for about a week or so… they were trying to extort jewelry, money whatever we were carrying. My mother was at that time probably eight months pregnant, she is due, she is due to deliver and here we are… it was my mother, my father, my grandmother and four kids. 

Ewelina: How old were you?

Nary: I was roughly about eight. 

Ewelina: Eight years old.. Okay, were you the oldest? Hold on…

Nary: No, I have my brother. He is the oldest. I am the second oldest. So he and I remember pretty much everything. All my youngest siblings were too young to remember anything. So anyway, we were held captive and you know and gun pointed at us all the time. At one point they finally came to realize: Okay they really don’t have any money. She is pregnant, this is a family with kids, you know. So they are trying to figure out what to do with us, either execute us or  let us go. So they marched us somewhere to another area and at that point there were two guys and they were talking about what to do with us. At that point my grandmother, she was very strong and very brave she wrestled one of them, grab the firearm from one of them and that’s when my mother and my father wrestled the other one and we got the gun and then pointed at them and they fled and that’s how we’ve escaped from that one. 

And then finally once we made it to the Thai border, the Thai soldiers picked us up along a dirt road and brought us to the refugee camps where UNICEF was processing us where to go from there. So here we are and then my mother gave birth to my baby brother in Bangkok, Thailand so he is a Thai citizen so that’s what his papers are, so we joke: Yeah you are actually not Cambodian you are Thai. So yeah, because of that we didn’t go to Switzerland we didn’t go to France like we were originally supposed to and then our sponsor family was here in the US and brought us here, to canton upstate New York which is about 10 miles south of the Canadian border out of all places. Coming from the tropics, knowing only tropical… no snow no nothing. We came late fall and it started snowing and this is a whole new thing for us, we don’t know what it is. What this cold felt like and it was a first experience for us. But it was also a very fun and very memorable experience for us as well too. 

Ewelina: Tell me about it, what was it like?

Nary: Absolutely. So as kids all we’ve known was shaved ice and shaved ice was made from these huge blocks of frozen ice and they shave it into like snow cone, as kids that’s what we’ve known. And we were like: Oh my God! Ice is falling from the sky?! Oh my God where do people live? That’s dangerous, you know. And once our sponsors were like: This is snow. We’re like: Oh okay. It’s just like shaved ice! 

Ewelina: cause you were like: where are the big blocks gonna be falling from? 

Nary: yeah exactly cause as kids all we’ve known were these big blocks so that’s where snow came from to us, but anyway… yeah so that was our first experience in the US. 

Ewelina: What was that like? I mean like what was happening in your mind? First of all you are running away from everything that you know. You are eight years old at that time you already have an idea of what your life is about. You have the basics, right? You have basics figured out in your life. You have friends, you have life that you are kind of used to and then all of this change, all of this threat I mean this must have been so terrifying, tell me, tell me what that was like…

Nary: It was very, very confusing as a kid because the life that we knew prior to escaping we’ve endured hardship part of that because you know. Because the Khmer Rouge, the communist party, put us all into work camps, and this was before fleeing Cambodia to the Thai border, we were all separated. I was separated into a different age category, work camp. We were forced to work out in the rice fields for fourteen hours a day and given meager, meager rations of rice and water. And the majority of the population died because of that. 

Ewelina: How many people?

Nary: Oh God, we are talking about five, six million people roughly, and if you look it up, if you google it and look it up I don’t know the numbers but it’s almost double the Holocaust. People that perished during that time. Yeah my brother was separated into a different work camp and my parents were separated into a different work camp because now you are a property of the government, you work for the government, you know.

Ewelina: So how did your parents get you back to escape?

Nary: So that’s when the fighting took place and the soldiers dispersed because that’s when the country was being taken over and there was a coup and because there were no soldiers holding us captive we fled we went back to where our hometown was, and that’s where we all met up and we fled from there. 

Ewelina: How long were you working in that camp before?

Nary: To be honest I don’t even remember, you know… you lose a sense of time.

Ewelina: Was it like years? Months? What are we taking?

Nary: Years, I’d probably say.

Ewelina: Years… wow! So you didn’t have that much of a childhood.

Nary: Not really, no. But I do remember bits and pieces. Well I can’t say… maybe the upper six months to a year maybe cause you know, you lose sense of time and you just remember bits and pieces of it and what has happened that really stuck out you know. 

Ewelina: So yeah that in itself must’ve been traumatic, being separated from your family and forced to be working and doing this as a child, like you are just surviving, just surviving. And then… yeah you are just surviving and you are terrified and everyone is terrified.

Nary: Yes everyone is just surviving and just trying not to get shot. You are basically just working and there is no way around it because there are soldiers with guns everywhere you turn.

Ewelina: So there is this, there is the escaping part, six months running and then being captive by the gorillas and then you finally come to the US. There is that trip of coming and finally landing in the US. What is that like? What does that feel like?

Nary: As a kid you just don’t know you are going with your parents because your parents are guiding you to safety. And you really don’t know the world outside of what you know it as a kid. 

So we didn’t know the US, we didn’t know Switzerland, we didn’t know France. The people that looked like me, looked like my family, that’s it. We didn’t come across blond haired blue eyed, we didn’t come across African American or anything like that. So it was the very first experience to see and meet people so you know it is very confusing and it is also very… I was very awestruck at the diversity. Face to face coming to see different people and different cultures. Yeah all at once so it’s really hard to process everything and take everything at once it’s just you know, you come to learn things, accept things every single day and discover all the diversities in the world. And as a child I found it to be fascinating and I found that my story is the story of I wouldn’t say… you know, people ask me: If you were able to go back and change everything and wish that bad didn’t happen…  I wouldn’t wish to change anything because my story brought me to where I am today as a person 

Ewelina: Yes, absolutely right? And what do you think are the like… if we were to pull out the biggest gems out of that whole experience 

Nary: For the experiences that you know that I went through and what I learned from that is to appreciate people and love your women men kind, does not matter if white black pink or purple, you know, we all bleed the same red color, because I saw a lot of ugly in humanity  and how cruel and ugly people can be and what I took away from that is kindness you know.

Ewelina: So you basically made a decision early on: I am not gonna be this. This is not gonna be it. 

Nary: Yeah, absolutely. 

Ewelina: As you are talking I have goosebumps throughout my whole body. Your story is so, so powerful.

Nary: Yeah, the thing is, you know, my kids know part of it but they don’t know every detail of it. I am not even sure that they can grasp that because they, you know, watch war movies and see terrible things. I say: You see that, now multiply it by a hundred. I witnessed that in person. What you could think of that could possibly happen, most likely I’ve witnessed that in person. So I tell them, you don’t know how lucky you are and you are living in a country of opportunity. And you are living in a bubble and you just don’t realize that there are negative things that go on in the world, terrible things that go on in the world. You know, we are protected and sheltered. They just don’t realize that.  

Ewelina: Right, and even thinking about the history of my country and where I have 

Come from and the struggles that we have had nothing like you have described in the recent history. I mean we had Holocaust and you know so many millions of Polish citizens have died there as well and the World War One World War Two, before that Poland didn’t even exist on a map for 127 years and before that we had monarchies and we were very very powerful country, so there is just so much to our history but there is a reason why we have a Second Amendment in this country and why that is so precious. 

Nary: Right, right.

Ewelina: Anyway that is my opinion on it, I believe that that is one of the reasons why we need to keep it is because of history of your country

Nary: Right, right. 

Ewelina: And my country.

Nary: History should not be erased you know, and it’s unfortunate that I see history being erased here. It should not define where we are as a country, it should be something of… something to learn from, because if you don’t have anything to learn from how are you to progress and move forward and be better. 

Ewelina: Absolutely,

Nary: And your history and your story in the past is what makes you better as a person or even as a country so… 

Ewelina: Yeah, and that’s it! We can take it from the personal level because obviously you have that in your life, evaluating: What can I do better, What went well, what didn’t go well, what do I want to do differently. We can do that also on a national level. 

But if we are changing the past but if we are changing the past, to not true, whatever version that we want to have because it’s correct. 

Nary: Correct.

Ewelina: yeah it’s all a lie. In Poland we had for the longest time, when we were part of the Soviet Union we were told that Soviet soldiers came and saved Poland from Germans, which was the biggest lie ever because they attacked Poland.

Nary: Right, right.

Ewelina: Poland was attacked by Germany and then it was attacked by Russia. And Germans and Russians were collaborating together. So anyway, let’s go back to you and to that moment when you’ve arrived, so obviously you are trying to process it all but you are trusting your parents, you are a child following them, trusting them but now you are a US resident, tell us about the beginning of it, what did that look like?

Nary: It was a moment of peace, you know. Peace in a totally different place you know different country, different seasons. Come to find out there were four seasons here in the US, coming from only one. Our sponsor families were a combination of different families. One was a gay men and several Christian families. And that was the first time we were exposed to Christianity because coming from the country of Buddhism we didn’t know any different. But all we know is that there were kind people across the world and these were kind people that helped us and brought us here to the US and from that understanding that there is beauty in people and kindness in people. And for me I try to practice that and remember that. As a kid these were strangers to us and they reached out and brought us here to safety and you know for me I am always grateful and thankful to them and so I try to live that moving forward with what I do on a daily basis. 

Ewelina: But everything was so different for you. 

Nary: Oh yeah, definitely. 

Ewelina: Everything was so different, I am sure there was a lot of confusion there, the language was different…

Nary: But we were definitely different, so each one of my siblings that was a grade school age we all had a Big Brother and Big Sister. I had Big Sister, and they came to our house and individually tutored us in English. And going into a town, a very very small town I am talking, one light on the main street. The mayor, the fireman, the policeman lived on the same street and my family was the only other minority. And the only other minority was a mixed man who was black and white and he lived right next door to us and he was a furniture maker and he made our very first living room set and donated it to us, and so our first experience in the US was filled with kindness all I can tell you. Kindness from gay man, Christians, African American man so for me that was a positive thing that I could take and learn from that. Because these were total strangers to me.

Ewelina: Right, how humbling, right? In the middle of that, when you are moving from hell to safety and to a place where other people actually care and want for you to be good. 

Nary: Right, right. 

Ewelina: and thriving and will do whatever they can to support you on that level. What a beautiful experience but such a contrast there too. What was it like for you growing up here in the US? 

Nary: I have great memories, especially in Canton, that was the town we first came to, and there was a small river that was filled with salmon and salmon run and I remember fishing and you know that was at the time when you could just grab your bike and go anywhere and you didn’t have to worry about it and you could come back before dark, unlike today. It was just very memorable and very joyful, you know, to look back and think about me growing up as a kid in Canton NY. 

Ewelina: So yeah I am thinking of the contrast.

Nary: Oh yeah.

Ewelina: The huge contrast, but you’ve experienced both and now you know that you can survive both, the hell and this amazing, heaven basically like in comparison. So how long did you stay in New York?

Nary: Upstate New York I can’t remember, I think we only stayed in Canton for a year and then we moved a little bit more south to Syracuse New York like the following year and a half or two years based on what I think I remember. And then we stayed in Syracuse till the late 80s, like ‘88, ‘89 and then we moved to Florida. I think it was ‘88.

Ewelina: And then you came down here, and now you are in Florida. That makes sense. 

 What do you think for you, and like, zooming out on your lifetime, that whole journey, what do you think was the hardest thing for you as an immigrant?

Nary: I am not quite sure I think my parents struggled with that more because you know I was a kid all I am doing is just going to school and learning a new language and trying to make friends. You know, the first time my experience with racism actually believed or not was in Canton but thinning back when I was a kid, I am thinking you know these teenagers were just being cruel or whatever driving by… I think they were college kids because they were driving and there is a college in the town they drove by us as we were walking to the park and threw beer cans and stuff at us and yelling racial slurs and we didn’t know they were racial slurs, you know, at the time and that was our first experience and only to realize that years later and putting those words to meaning. To us as kids, you know you deal with like bullying and things like that in your own country but wasn’t racism but here, because you know we didn’t have any other ethnicity where we were at so we just didn’t understand that so coming here because of the diversity and putting the meaning to the words only to find that out: oh yeah that was racism that we were dealing with and didn’t realize that until you know years later. I think it was the toughest one, coming to realize that racism exists here. 

Ewelina: And how did you deal with that piece then?

Nary: You know going back it’s coming to realize that there are different people, different upbringing, what they are taught is different, you know… how they were raised and coming to understand that not everybody is gonna be raised with kindness and it’s unfortunate that they go about in the world you know perpetuating this kind of behaviors, and I think me understanding and grasping that, that is not acceptable is probably you know..

Ewelina: Thank God you didn’t make it mean anything about you, right?

Nary: Right, exactly. 

Ewelina: People interpret these kinds of behaviors in all different kinds of ways but thank God it wasn’t about who you are and your value. Do you still see that in your life?

Nary: Eh, you know… no, not really. Every now and then everybody deals with it. America is the melting pot you know, the only natural people that are here is the Native American Indians, everybody is an immigrant at one point of their lives going back generations in time or whatever but throughout my time here in the US yeah you still see it but not as prevalent as in the ‘80s you know or early ‘90s I think people are coming to grasp that more, and learning acceptance more and tolerance and understanding. 

Ewelina: I think it has maybe something to do with where we live, it seems like there are more immigrants here. 

Nary: Especially in Florida. South Florida is especially a melting pot. Every ethnicity, every country is here and New York, you know, L.A. 

Ewelina: So why don’t we talk about our life right now? Tell us about it. 

Nary: I don’t know exactly that’s a pretty broad question, but I will try to sum it up as much as possible. I really enjoy my life. My richness is in my family and you know, in my friends. I don’t view my career as successfully defining who I am, you know… I don’t strive for the millions and millions and portray a certain lifestyle to whomever I meet and see, or whatever. No make up, probably messy hair is what you will meet me as, you know. And if there is somebody out there who wants help or needs help and if I can give it to you I am willing to give it to you. I am happy to give it to you and help you with it. And also in real estate, if somebody wants to step into the career of real estate. I can give you the connections. I can get you connected with my CEO. Cause I love what I do because it gives me the opportunity to give back to my community. That’s what I love about my office, and I am not raving about my office or promoting it in any way. It is because of my choice and how I see they run as a business. And they run as a business, you know, God, family and then business and that’s their motto and giving back to the community and that falls in line with who I am as a person. So my office is a perfect match for what I want to do. 

Ewelina: I am just thinking of the beginning of your life, like the whole story and this is where you have arrived, tomorrow is your birthday you will be celebrating with your family. 

Nary: Fifty two. Yeah I still think about it. You are only fifty two and it’s a number and I am only thirty in my mind. Best life was in my thirties, you know. I don’t wanna go back to my twenties because you know I am still stumbling and trying to figure out who you are in life. And in your thirties you have a pretty good grasp who you are, what you wanna be, you know. 

Ewelina: The energy level from your thirties but wisdom from all of it, right? 

Nary: Right, cause you know in your twenties, you know for me, I was still trying to figure out who I am and what I want to be and in my thirties I was assured of who I am and what I wanna be is for me to discover. 

Ewelina: Listen, thank you so much for coming, thank you for sharing this incredible story. It’s been such an honor to get to know you and to get to know your story, for sharing it with us because you know, my story is not as traumatic, there are not as many…. There has been struggles but nothing like you are describing and I think that it is important for us immigrants but also for people who are living here in the US and overall people in the world, where they are living in the country of their origin, the country they were born in, to hear stories like that so they can understand and appreciate the struggle and the strength that it took… to learn about what happens,when a country is going through something like that, what is the price, what is the possibility, what happens when people are actually faced with the survival and survival only. The evil that comes out in those kinds of situations. Yeah people need to know about this and I am so glad you have educated us on it. I am going to learn more and look it up online because we have not been taught in Europe as much about the history of that part of the world. We were taught the basics. We would learn about it but it was just really a mention rather than a deeper dive because we had plenty to learn about our own country. Well thank you so much for coming! Happy Birthday tomorrow, may the next however many years God gives you be just absolutely filled with blessings and joy and that inner sense of satisfaction, when you know, you wake up and you are like, I am loving my life.

Nary: Absolutely. I love my life and i the one thing I can give to your viewers out there you know is: don’t let your circumstances, your past circumstances define who you are as a person and define your future because it is a blank page and you are going to write your future story and what you put in it is entirely up to you. Here truly is a land of opportunity and it’s you who determines what your future, what your land of opportunity is, you know.

Ewelina: Amen to that. Absolutely! Thank you so much, this was awesome.

Nary: My pleasure, my pleasure, and if there is anybody out there who wants my help I am here to help you in any way I can. 

Ewelina: I will make sure to share your information in the description of the show so for those of you who are moving down to Florida we are specifically in Sarasota, and if you would like to work with Nary, you can contact her just look up in the description of the show you will see her information there. And for those of you who would like to have that advice on becoming a real estate agent, and maybe she can help you and give you some wisdom on that, that’s where you can find that information as well. So yes thank you so much, I really, really appreciate you.

Nary: Thank you and many blessings.