A Hmong refugee, Cha Tong Lee left his native Laos because, "We could not live in our country because the communists came," he said in a recent interview. Lee had been a soldier, and under the communist government feared for his life. He escaped to Thailand, and eventually arrived in the United States in 1989 with rudimentary knowledge of English and no job skills.
At first, Lee described his life as “very terrible”, compounded by having to live on welfare and enduring a family illness. Then, in 1994, on the recommendations of his uncle and nephew, he enrolled in Fremont School for Adults in Sacramento. He began with the ESL program, and after two and a half years, he had learned enough English to enroll in Fremont's high school completion program. He earned his high school diploma and graduated in 1998.
Six years later, Lee describes his life as “very good”. “I can speak English,” he proudly exclaims, “I have a job. It's easy for me to make a living. I have a house. My family lives together. We have a lot of fun.” The Lee family home is brand new and spacious. Today he works in the computer industry building and installing computers. It is a job he enjoys.
A firm believer in the power of education, Lee believes that the most important thing you can do in the U.S. is go to school. After work, Lee helps his children with homework — reading, math, and sometimes he teaches them to draw. In his words: "If you come to the United States and you don't go to school, you don't know anything. You have to study English, math, computers, everything. If you know all the things you need to know, it makes your life easier."
Lee credits the excellent teaching staff at Fremont for making a significant difference in his life. "When they opened my mouth," he said, "it helped me open my eyes, and now I can see farther." Lee was fortunate to have had teachers dedicated to ensuring his success. English as a Second Language teachers Marge Matoba and Toni Chapralis were patient and encouraging when Lee was struggling to acquire basic English reading, writing, and speaking skills. Through the excellent teaching and support of teacher Ann Marandos, Lee was able to complete his high school education and earn a diploma.
Across an ocean and a successful transition into a new language and culture, Lee has already traveled further than he ever imagined.