In part two of our chat with Monica Samreth, we revisited her childhood and her family’s struggle to survive poverty and neighborhood violence in Long Beach’s Cambodia Town. In the concluding post in this series, we see how a surprising turn of events began to redeem the family’s sorrows – even those of the Killing Fields.
For Monica, winning the 2013 Miss Long Beach pageant was an unexpected journey. She remembers her initial reaction to the idea of being a contestant. “Pageant? Monica? Please,” she says. “I’m not dainty; I don’t do any of that.” The notion also seemed ridiculous because she had never before entered a pageant, and this one was only two weeks away.
She wasn’t the only one who was surprised. Monica recalls, “My mom didn’t even know that I was running for the pageant. She thought I was going to be the flower girl!” Even the day of the pageant, her mother still thought her only role would be to present bouquets to the winners. Monica explains, “She was tailoring my dress for the evening wear, and she said ‘Wow, you’re dressed really nicely for this.’ I thought she knew that I was a contestant!”
The decision to enter the pageant was born out of a fresh sense of purpose, found two years before. Thought not an especially faith-oriented person in college, in the year after her graduation, Monica decided to visit a church out of curiosity. The minister’s message that day focused on Jesus Christ’s invitation to his friend and follower Peter to experience a miraculous walk on a lake with him.
The sermon rocked Monica’s world. She explains, “I felt Jesus was calling me out. ‘Monica, you’ve been in the boat for too long, watching others really live their purpose.’ I thought, ‘Wow. I went through a lot. Mom went through a lot. But that shouldn’t go to waste. Why did that all happen?’” She realized, “Life is all about serving through the experiences and skills you have, as a testimony to those who are going through what you went through.”
Monica’s fresh perspective and new-found faith turned her energies back to her local ethnic community in Cambodia Town. Said to be the largest concentration of Cambodians in the United States, it is still marked by high rates of poverty and unemployment, and lower-than-average rates of educational achievement and possession of health insurance. Many residents continue to suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) resulting from the horrors they knew under the Khmer Rouge. Gang violence has decreased significantly, but random violence is a major concern.
To keep her and her mother’s experiences from going to waste, Monica joined the work of the United Cambodian Community (UCC), today serving as its youngest board member. She speaks with pride about UCC’s mission: “It helps members of the Cambodian community get back on their feet. We help them with mental health training for PTSD, with U.S. citizenship applications, with English classes. And it’s not just for Cambodians; it’s for anyone who needs assistance with becoming productive members of the community.”
Monica also began volunteering with Gems Uncovered, a group that takes to the streets of Long Beach every Friday night to provide assistance to women who are victims of human trafficking. She relates, “I felt like God was really calling out for me to be a voice for the voiceless – for these women.” She notes the irony, saying, “The very streets that I was not allowed to hang out in because it was so dangerous, I’m now walking – showing love, giving out food, praying for them, whatever they need.”
Signing up for the Miss Long Beach pageant was also very intentional on Monica’s part. It was an attempt to shine a light on the needs of fellow Cambodians and of trafficked women, who like her mother, have been forced to leave home behind. She reveals, “I thought that as long as I stayed true to myself, and I won, then it was meant to be. It happened, and now, it’s about being an advocate, using it as a platform.”
By winning the pageant, Monica became the first Cambodian American to hold the title of Miss Long Beach. And her mother’s reaction, after she realized that not only was her daughter a contestant, but the winner? Monica says, “My mom went home that night, and she just kept pinching herself and looking at herself in the mirror. She said, ‘Wow, I made Miss Long Beach! Through all the stuff I went through, I’m doing OK. I’m proud of myself for raising a daughter like that.’”
Her mother’s moment of celebration reveals a broader appreciation for her life – even with the years in the Killing Fields and the struggles in America. Monica explains, “She’s really looked at her life as worthwhile because she’s been able to raise three kids that are not in gangs, that are successful, happy, and mentally healthy, and that are doing life with people who are good to them. At the end of the day she feels like she’s done her job. That’s confirmation for everything that she’s gone through.”
Monica concludes, “Life is so worth it to make the most of it. And after we’ve gone through the hardships and the craziness of life, what are we going to use our stories for? Are we going to let them go to waste? Or are we going to share those stories again, and give hope or inspiration for someone to live out a better life? To know that although they had a bad life, they have tomorrow?”
For more on Monica, visit her website at MonicaSamreth.com.