“It hasn’t ever been easy, but I have the kind of life I dreamed about.”


“It hasn’t ever been easy, but I have the kind of life I dreamed about.”

That’s a powerful statement, coming from someone who survived genocide. Our friend and colleague, Maly E’k-Doungpanya endured astounding hardship. She arrived in San Diego with her family way back in 1983 after surviving the killing fields of Cambodia, a dangerous flight from her homeland, life-threatening disease, starvation, and a refugee camp in Thailand.

People often assume that’s when things might get easy for refugees, once they arrive in the United States or some other safe space with opportunities. The truth is, that’s when the adrenaline fades, harsh realities set in, and a long, grinding uphill climb begins. Starting fresh in San Diego, for all its beauty and opportunity, is not easy. Not by a long shot. For parents just arriving, it often means navigating a world totally foreign, with little help, often unable to read signs or understand basic rules of the alien society, often ignored. 

Maly and her family have worked hard over the past few decades, and now she can look back on it all with fondness. 

“Coming to this country was all I ever dreamed about. I would always say to myself: I want to learn to speak English, I want to get a job, I want an education, I want a family, I want a house. I’m so blessed. It hasn’t ever been easy, but I have the kind of life I dreamed about.”

Perhaps the most inspiring thing about Maly, though, (and there are many things about Maly that inspire us!) is the fact that she didn’t work hard, become successful, and then take care of herself and her own people. Maly calls herself ‘blessed’ and uses that blessing to bless others. She serves.

As our Economic Development Manger here at the CDC, Maly advises low-icome families and new business owners, many of them immigrants and refugees like herself, on how to build a life for themselves. 

“I have so much passion for other human beings, especially those who suffer,” she says. “For example, a majority of Cambodians here suffer from PTSD. I see so many people struggling to survive, not just financially, but in every way you can imagine. I know from experience that it takes a lot to trust someone, anyone, who says they’re going to help. I like to share my own story and hope they know I can relate to them by caring.”

And Maly does care. During her 16 years here at the CDC, she has helped hundreds of idealistic entrepreneurs get on their feet, make a business plan, navigate that infamous California government bureaucracy, and ultimately fulfill their dream of owning their own business. 

Today, we celebrate Maly’s selflessness and are honored to work alongside her. Such a legacy!

Matthew Willingham