By Carolyn Bick
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Though he serves as a conciliation specialist with the United States Department of Justice, Knight Sor went to school for physics and American history. It was his work as an astrophysicist in Cape Town, South Africa, that indirectly led him to his current profession as a Conciliation Specialist with the Department of Justice.
When he first arrived in Cape Town, Sor, now 44, was “completely ignorant” of the effects of apartheid on Black South Africans. But each time he left the grocery store, people almost always stopped him to ask for food or money. Over time, he started buying two sets of groceries: one set for himself, and one set for those who asked him for food. On top of his observations of everyday life in the country, these grocery trips got him thinking hard about South Africa’s race-based policies, and, upon his return to the United States, Sor wrote a thesis on South Africa as a race-based state.
It was this thesis that attracted the attention of officials at the Department of Justice (DOJ). He thought the invitation was for a lecture, because, at the time, he was lecturing on his thesis findings at different colleges and universities. Instead, the invitation turned out to be a job interview.
Sor accepted on the condition that he get to travel, rather than work in one place. That was almost 10 years ago, in 2009. Sor can’t discuss the specifics of his work, but, since then, he has been involved in high profile cases.
“I love travelling. Without the department, there is no way I could see myself going to, say, Sanford, when my colleagues needed help with the Trayvon Martin case . There was no way I would go to North Dakota, when we were deployed to work with Native Americans, and the sheriff’s office on how to approach the pipeline issues through peaceful protest, or peaceful means of engagement,” Sor said.
But Sor works locally, too, and it’s that work that has allowed him to make inroads with the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community. For instance, he said, in working to assist several houses of worship that had been vandalized over the years in the areas surrounding Seattle, his department decided to convene a group of faith leaders. Among those leaders were two Cambodian monks. After the meeting, they approached him to ask if he might speak with the youth in their community to share his perspectives on his career path.
That event is still in the works, but it’s an expression of a larger theme Sor finds and values in his work. He said it doesn’t matter how many kids ultimately attend the talk. What’s important is the visibility.
“A lot of people told me that they are happy to see a former Cambodian refugee serving in this capacity, because in the AAPI community, visualization is important,” Sor said. “In doing my work, I try to let people know, right off the bat … that I am a former refugee from Cambodia.”
Sor and his family came to the United States in 1979 in the first wave of Cambodian refugees. If it hadn’t been for the Vietnamese invasion, Sor said he and his family would probably still be living in Cambodia, and he would likely be a businessman. At the time, he said, his grandmother ran the country’s second-largest rice export business. But “fate always plays tricks on you.”
“Many of us did not make it. About 80 percent of our family were killed by the Khmer Rouge, whether through execution or starvation, so that’s …” Sor trailed off, before continuing, “Highly unfortunate. Yeah. That’s something we do have to deal with, as a family.”
Sor and his brother were the only two Asians in their classes through sixth grade. Even decades later, when he sees newly-arrived refugees who don’t know English, it brings back memories of his own parents, who struggled to start over again at 35 years old, without speaking English.
“Even though immigration and refugees are not part of our jurisdiction, anti sentiments against them are,” Sor said. “It’s really awesome … meeting these people, and learning so much from them, and the fact that I find them to be very resilient … And this goes beyond the API community.”
Part of Sor’s job entails assisting hate groups. On a professional level, he said, he recognizes that it is a group of individuals exercising their First Amendment rights, and he does his job without letting his personal feelings get in the way. Outside work, he does what he can to shed the burden of the rhetoric.
“Hate costs a lot. Not from the persons who are projecting hate, not from the victims who are receiving it, but bystanders who hear it, whether they hear it on the news, or social media,” Sor said.
“For me, how I cope with it, is that I try to do the best job I can professionally, in ending racial conflict, and I usually disappear right into the mountains, and I do so with my snowboard. I go to some of the wildest places that some people have never been to, or very few have ever been to, just interacting with Mama Nature.”
Sor will be honored at the Top Contributors award dinner on Dec. 7 at House of Hong Restaurant in Seattle, from 6–9 p.m.
Carolyn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.