Ranachith “Ronnie” Yimsut is a genocide survivor, an orphan and a refugee. He is also a brother, husband, father, architect, author, teacher and social justice activist.
But more than anything, Ronnie is an inspiration.
I met Ronnie in the Cafe at the Pfister and I don’t think I have ever said fewer words during an interview. All I could do was listen, nod and occasionally fight back a tear.
Ronnie was born in Cambodia during the early years of the Vietnam War. When the Khmer Rouge moved in, 12-year-old Ronnie and his family were forced into work camps.
Ronnie suffered two years of hard labor, starvation and warfare. He was the only survivor of a Killing Fields attack in December 1977 where he lost nine of his 12 family members, including his parents.
After fleeing the site on foot, Ronnie eventually reached Thailand where he was jailed. He was later moved to a “holding center” where he learned how to plant and harvest crops. He was finally able to eat more food, but still only weighed 80 pounds at the age of 16.
Eventually, news crews began to appear at the center and Ronnie told his traumatic story and showed his scars to the world. When a distant aunt, who worked for Voice of America in Washington, D.C., saw that he was still alive, she sponsored his emigration.
So Ronnie, believing at the time he was the sole survivor in his family, came to the United States just before his 17th birthday. He enrolled at a high school in Washington, D.C. and later finished up in Portland, Ore. He then got a degree in architecture from the University of Oregon.
While in college, Ronnie learned his oldest brother and sister had survived and were in a refugee camp in Thailand with their families.
“Overnight, I had 13 mouths to support,” he says.
For five years, Ronnie sent money to them while working two or three jobs and going to school full time. He also took out loans to help them and eventually move them to the United States.
Five years ago, Ronnie relocated to Milwaukee to accept a job as a senior landscape architect for the USDA Forest Service. He brought his wife and two children, now adults, with him.
But this is only two-thirds of Ronnie’s story. One-third of his life is dedicated to activism and giving back to his homeland.
In 1993, Ronnie envisioned a school that would train and empower rural villagers to live sustainable lives. Eventually, he designed and built Bakong Technical College in Siem Reap, Cambodia, where he is now the non-paid chairman of the board.
The college trains men and women a variety of skills including language, carpentry, construction, masonry, hospitality, food science, small engine repair, bicycle repair, clothing making and more. The students are also taught about the tourist industry.
Ronnie has written numerous books, including his most recent book, “Facing the Khmer Rouge: A Cambodian Journey.” He is also a human rights activist and has frequent speaking engagements about genocide.
When he paused to take a sip of his drink and a bite of his sandwich, I was speechless, humbled, inspired. I cannot imagine experiencing so much violence and hardship and culture shock and to come out of it so strong and smart and committed – without debilitating anger, without hate.
“I shouldn’t be here,” said Ronnie, whose given name, “Ranachith,” means “undefeated warrior” in Sanskrit. “But I am. And so, I am making the most of my life.”
Update: Ronnie also took some time to speak with Artist-in-Residence, Stephanie Barenz during his visit to The Pfister. Stephanie has since created a painting inspired by his story.