News Column

News & Record, Greensboro, N.C. Jeri Rowe column

June 13, 2014

By Jeri Rowe, News & Record, Greensboro, N.C.

June 13--GREENSBORO -- All he really needed was his guitar. If he had it, he'd be playing.

Eyes closed. Lips pursed. Looking skyward. He'd be lost in his music and finding that place of no stress, no worries, like some reset button on his computer. He has a name for it: Heaven.

But he got close to that Thursday afternoon. I watched. Risuin Ksor stood with his classmates, the students who call him Suin. That's pronounced like swim with an "n.'' They all had just graduated from Weaver Academy, the county's performing arts school. Suin just beamed.

He made it. He graduated. After he told me his story, I wonder how.

He heard how the Vietnamese government wanted his whole family killed. He heard how the government put a bounty on his father's head -- $1,000, a big payout in a country where the annual income was $140 per person when the government wanted his dad dead.

He heard how his dad, a Christian missionary, preached, built churches, created choirs and worked as an interpreter for the United Nations. His dad also brought his people, the Montagnards, out of Vietnam's central highlands to save them from certain death.

Hate sometimes never forgets. Montagnards aided the Americans during the Vietnam War, and two decades later, the government wanted them gone whatever way possible. So, Suin's father spent three years escorting 600 Montagnards across the border into Cambodia.

Suin told me his dad and the other refugees walked through the jungle as far as, say, Greensboro to High Point. The only weapon his dad had? A Bible no bigger than his dad's palm.

Suin remembers.

He remembers the letter from their dad telling him and his mom to flee Vietnam. He remembers the two-day walk through the jungle toward Cambodia, his mom carrying him on her back. He remembers the gun-toting Vietnamese soldiers coming into Cambodia to kill his family.

He remembers the escapes, sometimes hours before daybreak with minutes to gather their belongings. And he remembers the thought imbedded in his mind: I'm going to die in Cambodia.

All this happened when Suin was no older than 6. Now, at 18, he has learned from that.

"It helped me grow stronger because I have nothing to worry about,'' he tells me. "I am in a safe place.''

One safe place was Greensboro College'sOdell Auditorium on Thursday. Suin wore a black graduation gown, with a gray tassel, comfortable in his own skin.

He didn't always feel like that. Not at all.

Suin arrived 12 years ago in Greensboro and couldn't speak a lick of English. He learned first at classes held at Grace Community Church on West Lee Street and improved as he matriculated from Jesse Wharton Elementary to Mendenhall Middle and finally Weaver Academy.

He got there because of his guitar. And his dad.

It was his eighth-grade year when he saw his dad playing guitar in the basement of their local church. His mom sang, and she and his dad harmonized on the old hymn "What a Friend We Have in Jesus.''

Suin loved what he saw. His dad taught him a few chords and later got him a few lessons at Don's Music City on Battleground Avenue. Suin played for at least six months. Then, his English teacher at Mendenhall told him about Weaver. He had no idea the school existed.

His teacher encouraged him to try out. Suin did. Patrick Lui, Weaver's guitar teacher, watched. Suin wasn't the best. But Lui had a gut feeling about Suin, just by the way he paid attention, and he wanted to bring Suin in.

See, Lui remembers. Nearly a quarter-century ago, he came from China to study at the North Carolina School of the Arts and dealt with the obstacles immigrants face of finding their place in a strange land.

So, Lui pushed Suin hard, and the more he pushed, the harder Suin worked. A year ago, Weaver named Suin its most valuable guitar student. Lui gave him lessons all summer -- in exchange for chores at his house.

Last summer, Suin placed third in the high school division of a national guitar competition. This spring, Suin won the award as Weaver's most outstanding guitar student. Next fall, he will attend Guilford College to study music and music education.

And he got a full ride. Suin wants to be a music teacher. Just like Lui.

"Music,'' he says. "It helped me find myself.''

Suin's dad drives a forklift, and his mom works as a housekeeper at a local nursing home. His middle brother, Phillip, will go to Page High next fall, and youngest brother, Benjamin, will remain at Jesse Wharton.

In their house, they speak Jrai, the language of Vietnam's central highlands. I can't understand it. But I don't need to. Not on Thursday. As Suin stood on the steps outside Odell Auditorium after graduation, I saw across his mom's face an unspoken language we all know.

Hhmyil Ksor smiled. Suin's dad, Moeun Puih, would've, too. But he needed to be at Mendenhall Middle to see Phillip graduate.

Suin didn't mind. After graduation, surrounded by his friends, Suin felt numb. I asked about it -- the ceremony, the everything. He had three words.

"I did it.''

Contact Jeri Rowe at (336) 373-7374 or find him @JeriRoweNR on Twitter or


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