RICHMOND, Va. -- Amanda Prak never takes a day in America for granted. The Richmond hair stylist counts her blessings that she escaped a nightmare.
"I’m just thankful to wake up every morning," Amanda said. "It is beyond my dreams. Sometimes I wake up and I ask, ‘Is this real?'"
Thirty-nine years ago, and 9,000 miles away, Amanda and her family escaped with their lives. The Khmer Rouge, a brutal communist regime, ruled Cambodia with an iron fist slaughtering millions of her fellow Cambodians. At nine years old, Amanda was forced into a child labor camp.
Her brother and sister perished from illness and starvation.
"You work. You're forced to work. And when you don’t work you don’t eat and they feed you barely anything,” Amanda said. “My father said he couldn’t lose any more children so we fled Cambodia.”
The family escaped while being hunted.
Trekking through minefields and waterways clogged with bodies.
"Some night I go to sleep with nothing at all. I wanted to die in my sleep to end the suffering,” she recalled.
Death was never far from the little girl.
"I dropped and rolled into a ditch and rolled onto a corpse. It probably had been dead for days. The flies were buzzing,” she said.
Amanda and her family finally reached a refugee camp in Thailand.
But the Praks wanted a better life. So two years later, in August 1981, the Praks immigrated to Richmond.
“We came to this country empty handed,” Amanda said.
The Praks, especially Amanda, would not waste their opportunity.
“People say ‘Whoa. Amanda is not a Cambodian name. No it is not. It is American. That is because I am American now,’” Amanda said.
She may be American, but Amanda never forgot from where she came.
In 2006, she founded 100 Pounds Hope which is a non-profit that feeds the people in her rural hometown. A few years ago, Amanda took the extraordinary step to nourish young minds by opening a school for 400 children.
“I need to do what I can for the kids at home,” Amanda said. “So this is my way of keeping kids safe as an incentive to feed them.”
Her school has bathrooms and concrete floors. A luxury most of the boys and girls don't have at home.
“Just because I see how much they appreciate when I go,” Amanda said.
When the 49-year-old returns to Cambodia every year, she is welcomed like a celebrity.
“Oh, I can’t explain how it feels. It is just incredible,” she said.
Amanda wants each boy and girl to have what was stolen from her -- a childhood.
Endless smiles and hugs fill Amanda with much joy. Amanda Prak embodies the American Dream, but she vows never to forget her roots.
“When I see those kids. I see myself in that situation,” she said. “This is like the healing process.”