Inspiration: Refugee's life story inspires colleagues
Many words capture the essence of Ranachith [Ronnie] Yimsut’s first 47 years: brave, devoted, unselfish, tireless, ambitious, giving — and the list goes on. There is one word, however, that people who work with Yimsut often use to sum up the Cambodian refugee who escaped the savage Khmer Rouge regime more than 30 years ago. “Simply stated, the word for Ronnie is inspiration,” said Rick Kell, a US Forest Service team leader for technical services who works with Yimsut, a landscape architect at the service’s Eastern Region headquarters in Milwaukee.
Yimsut escaped the Khmer Rouge death squads when he was a teenager by sheer tenacity and an inner quest for freedom. His mother, father, aunts, uncles and several cousins allied with the Khmer Republic government forces weren’t so lucky. They were among the 1.7 million people murdered by the Khmer Rouge during a bloody rebellion that extended from the late 1960s through the late 1970s. Yimsut escaped to Thailand, a journey that took him 150 miles from his home in Siem Reap province, and was then imprisoned by Thai officials as a political refugee. Thanks to the intervention of the International Red Cross and a CBS '60 Minutes' story by the late Ed Bradley, Yimsut was set free and eventually immigrated to Oregon, a state that welcomed tens of thousands of Cambodian refugees in the late 1970s. “Most of us will go through life and never meet anyone who has persevered the hardships or even remotely understand what Ronnie has overcome,” said Robin Gyorgyfalvy, a district landscape architect at the Deschutes National Forest in Bend, Ore., and a former colleague of Yimsut’s.
Yimsut eventually received a high school diploma and a bachelor’s degree in landscape architecture from the University of Oregon. He started his career with the U.S. Forest Service in Bend, and moved to Milwaukee three years ago. “I didn’t know what I was getting into with the cold and snow, and the high taxes,” said Yimsut, whose personal blog always compares the temperature of Milwaukee and Bend or Portland. By day, Yimsut is a landscape architect for the U.S. Forest Service in Milwaukee, a regional headquarters that covers 20 states from Minnesota and Missouri east to Maine and Massachusetts. Yimsut designs and plans National Forest recreation and tourist sites and conducts environmental impact studies on landscape ecologies and ecosystems. He is called on to help reclaim or conserve resources that have been damaged by floods or fires.
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During his off hours, Yimsut devotes his time, educational resources and money to redeveloping his hometown near Angkor, a city that’s home to one of the most sacred archeological sites in all of Southeast Asia. From his home in Greenfield, Yimsut oversees development of Bakong Ecotourism Technical College, a 27-acre campus in Siem Reap province at the northern end of Tonle Sap Lake in Cambodia. The technical college is intended to provide skills to Cambodian residents in the villages of the province and city of Angkor who entertain more than 2.5 million tourists annually to the Angkor Wat World Heritage Monument site. The site stretches over more than 200 square miles and contains the remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire from the 9th to the 15th century. As part of his involvement with a nonprofit organization called Project Enlighten, Yimsut also founded a 'cow bank' program that provides breeding cows to impoverished Cambodian farmers. For a $300 donation, Yimsut and Project Enlighten can supply a cow that will deliver a family from poverty, said a spokeswoman from Project Enlighten.
Once or twice a year, Yimsut, his wife and children travel to Cambodia to visit friends and Yimsut’s brother and sister-in-law, who survived the Khmer Rouge reign of terror. Yimsut already has begun construction of the technical college, which is his prized project. “I always strive for excellence and seek new challenges while considering the past, present and future,” Yimsut said in a recent interview. The technical college will provide training in various skills needed in cultural and environmental conservation. There also will be a focus on service industries such as hotel services, restaurants and professional guide services, as well as foreign language and computer literacy instruction. Yimsut estimates the technical college startup costs will range from $75,000 to $100,000. He’s pursuing funding from public grants, endowments and private contributions. By 2010, the Cambodian government estimates the tourism trade in and around the Angkor World Monument Heritage Site will exceed $2 billion.
At the same time Ronnie Yimsut is juggling his nonprofit endeavors and full-time job at the Forest Service, he finds time to write. Yimsut co-authored The Children of Cambodia’s Killing Fields, published in May 1997 by Yale University Press, and In the Shadow of Angkor, published in March 2004 by University of Hawaii Press. He currently is working on a personal memoir titled, Journey into Light, which he hopes to have published in several languages. "Ronnie has a work ethic and integrity that’s exciting to be part of,” Gyorgyfalvy said. Meanwhile, back at the Forest Service, Ronnie Yimsut’s foremost mission is to flood-proof many of the national forest assets in the eastern region. He’s also working to preserve many of the scenic byways within national forests for future US generations.
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