Former refugee and LBJ School alumna bridges diplomacy with culture | LBJ School of Public Affairs | The University of Texas at Austin
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“Mangled feet were the least of [my mother’s] concerns,” Amara Chhin wrote.

The barbed forest ground, sleeping explosives and the feeling of being responsible for five lives permeated Chhin’s mother’s perilous journey to the Kao-I-Dang refugee camp on the Thai border. None of these dangers, however, matched her mother’s fear of Pol Pot.

“I can vividly envision the sense of duty and service with which she led their atrophied bodies through the sodden terrain in the early rain season to eventually meet my father,” Chhin, an MGPS December 2016 graduate, continued.

The atrophied bodies refer to her mother’s infant daughter strapped to her chest (Chhin’s sister), her sister, her cousin and her elderly parents.

Chhin was born at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) camp. Her mother had made it to safety, but their journey was far from over. 

Chhin and her family resettled as political refugees in Houston, Texas in 1981. Facing culture shock and discrimination, Chhin found an outlet in the performing arts. She eventually pursued vocal studies at the University of Houston, struck by the realization she was likely the only Cambodian classically-trained operatic soprano at that time. It was fortuitous that her first professional contract brought her back to Cambodia.

“I was a foster child returning to my mother land, which thus far had only existed in grim genocidal impressions,” Chhin said.

After a particularly powerful performance in a squatter community in Phnom Penh, Chhin said she realized the impact of cultural heritage.

“This experience provided an example of how cultural preservation can promote healing, improve economic well-being and repair lives,” she said.

Chhin, who recently released her first solo single, realized her interest in arts lay beyond that of recording artist and stage performer to also include the legal discourse of arts development, arts policy and how to improve the lives of people in traumatized and engaged communities.

“Through my coursework [at the LBJ School], I gained a deepened interest in the cultural dynamics of international relations, leading me to the invaluable opportunity to intern in the multilateral capital of the world: the United Nations Office at Geneva,” Chhin said.

Chhin worked at the Palais des Nations in the Cultural Activities and Outreach program, helping to implement UN cultural policy in an effort to nurture mutual respect and understanding through cultural exchange.

“Particularly valuable was the chance to see, first-hand, the operational realities of governmental interactions in the cultural domain within a multilateral diplomatic structure,” she said. “My sense of duty and service has manifested in an appetite for learning about cultural interactions between human beings and between states,” she said.

Read more on Chhin's story via UN Special.