His shocking story sparks inspiration

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.

The Secret

 

A young girl

tells her grandfather

she’s learning to write.

 

She explains

the yellow pencils

and blue lined paper

 

She tells him she’s learned

how to write her name.

 

“Well that’s magnificent!”

he exclaims,

“I’d love to read your handwriting.

Will you write something for me?”

 

 

She shakes her head,

“But Grandpa,

you can’t read it yet,

 

“I’m just practicing.”

 

Her grandfather smiles

and leans down to whisper

gravelly grinning decades next to her face

 

“My dear,

that is the great secret.

 

Even when you get good

at handwriting, or anything else,

even when you grow up

and get big like your parents,

even when you’re old like me,

 

every shoelace

and every signature

 

is still

just

practice.

 

Let me show you…”

he explains,

wrapping his fingers

around the yellow Ticonderoga

#2

 

“We can practice

together.”

 

The Pfister Hotel seeks next “Narrator in Residence”

The historic Pfister Hotel in downtown Milwaukee, which is owned and managed by Marcus® Hotels & Resorts, is in search of its next writer in residence, known as the Pfister Narrator. The chosen candidate will spend time in the hotel’s lobby, speaking with visitors and guests and sharing their stories through a blog on the hotel’s website.

“The Pfister Narrator program has served as a great way to honor our guests and their experiences at the hotel and beyond,” says Joe Kurth, general manager of The Pfister Hotel. “The exposure and success of the program is continually growing.”

The person chosen next for the position will be the hotel’s fourth narrator, and will replace current narrator, Ed Makowski. He has been blogging from the hotel since November 2011; his stories can be found at blog.thepfisterhotel.com.

“During my time at the Pfister, this unique narrator position has given me a space to expand and develop my writing and story gathering skills,” says Makowski. “All at once the hotel has been a comfortable living room and big artistic playground. I’ve been a traveler among travelers. It will be exciting to meet the next writer to take on this fantastic position.”

The new Pfister Narrator will work a minimum of 10 hours per week over the course of a six-month period and will publish a minimum of two blog posts per week. In return he or she will receive his or her choice of a $1,000 monthly stipend, scholarship for continuing education or donation to a charity of his or her choice in his or her honor, in addition to complimentary parking and meals within the hotel’s cafeteria. The Narrator’s blog posts will later be published in a narrator book series. The first narrator Julie Ferris’ book is currently available in the hotel’s gift shop.

To be considered, applicants will need to submit an application form, current resume, 2-3 writing samples of recent work, a cover letter and two professional letters of recommendation to pfisternarratorapps@thepfisterhotel.com. Six finalists will be asked to write two sample blog entries and participate in a video interview. Deadline for submissions is March 1, 2012. The Pfister Narrator will take his or her post the week of May 1, 2012, and will remain the hotel’s storyteller through October 2012. A review panel will evaluate the applications and ultimately choose the Pfister Narrator. More information and the application form can be found at ThePfisterHotel.com/Pfister-Narrator.

Since 2009, the hotel has been a member of the Alliance of Artist Communities, www.artistcommunities.org, an international association of artists’ communities and residencies featuring a diverse field of more than 1,000 programs worldwide.

 

 

Historic Hotel Selects Next In-House Storyteller: Welcome, Stacie Williams.

The historic Pfister Hotel in downtown Milwaukee has named Stacie Michelle Williams as its second ‘Pfister Narrator.’ In the role, she will spend time in the hotel’s lobby, interviewing visitors and guests and sharing their stories on the Pfister’s blog (blog.thepfisterhotel.com). As narrator, she will be posting blog entries twice-per-week over a six-month period.

“To say I’m excited to be the next Pfister Narrator would be inaccurate and a little bit of an understatement,” says Williams. “More accurate would be to say that I’m a little nervous, as there’s great pressure in telling people’s stories with truth and honor. I am also more than excited, I’m thrilled: this is a chance to share the love of my adopted city of Milwaukee, to do so through such a beautiful historic establishment and via the voices of those who, often, like me, are not natives either.”

With a love of stories and storytelling, Williams has worked at a local Milwaukee bookstore for more than five years, and has experience in travel writing and blogging. She studied theater at University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee and is active in its creative writing program.

Williams was chosen to serve as narrator based on her writing style and outgoing personality from a significant pool of qualified applicants by a review panel, which included publisher of The Business Journal Serving Greater Milwaukee, Mark Sabljak; executive director of the East Town Association, Kate Borders; Judith Moriarty, a longtime local writer; and representatives from the hotel, including Julie Ferris, The Pfister’s first-ever narrator.

“We were thrilled with the success of the introduction of the narrator program last year,” says Joe Kurth, general manager of The Pfister Hotel. “Our guests have a special connection to The Pfister and interesting stories to tell—it has been wonderful sharing their unique experiences and backgrounds with the rest of Milwaukee and beyond.”

Williams will begin her stint as narrator on May 1, 2011. More information about the Pfister Narrator program can be found at www.ThePfisterHotel.com/Pfister-Narrator.

Meet Stacie Williams, our next Pfister Narrator