The big, muscular boy had been making fun of “how I talked,” said Dymanh Chhoun, a Cambodian refugee.
Chhoun wouldn’t let it go.
The boy, standing about 5 inches taller than Chhoun, wouldn’t apologize, so Chhoun told him to meet in the school locker room for a fight.
“As I walked [into the locker room] with my 12 friends behind my back, I saw he only had three,” Chhoun recalled. “I saw he only had three. This was going to be easy.”
Chhoun “bruised him up,” he said, and went off to a classroom. But that wasn’t the end of the story. He was taken out of class to a police officer and was expelled from Minneapolis Roosevelt High School, losing his chance to play football as a senior and threatening his graduation.
In the end, Chhoun got back into school with help from a Sunday school teacher, got to play football his senior year and graduated on time. He also participated in a ThreeSixty Journalism camp at the University of St. Thomas and discovered his passion.
Now 31, Chhoun is a videographer at WCCO-TV, doing what he says he loves the most: storytelling.
“I never ever wake up and feel like this is a job,” Chhoun said passionately. “I’m doing what I like; even if it’s a sad story, I feel like I’m out there to get the story. It’s not a job, it’s fun.”
Chhoun was born in a Thailand refugee camp in 1986. His parents fled from the murderous Khmer Rouge dictatorship in Cambodia. The camp was large enough to hold groups of the Hmong and Vietnamese.
“I remember the freedom of not worrying about anything,” Chhoun said. His family owned a business selling jewelry, he said.
As the years passed, most of the families were sent back to their home countries. But Chhoun’s family was one of the lucky ones to come to America because of his sister’s rare heart defect that was treated successfully in Minneapolis, he said.
His family arrived in Minnesota in 1993. They lived for a time with friends in Minneapolis and survived on welfare and food stamps, he said. But in 1996, they bought a duplex a couple of blocks away. His family lived there for nine years, but the neighborhood was so dangerous that helicopters flew around frequently, he said.
Chhoun started at Armatage Elementary School not knowing any English except “yes” and “no.” He felt awkward, but happy and excited to go to school and create friendships.
As school came along, so did the bullying. Chhoun would get bullied for how he spoke and for his heritage.
“I got suspended almost every grade,” he said. “I wouldn’t punch them, I would usually jump-kick the bullies. I wanted to be like Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan.”
At Roosevelt, he started playing football—varsity starting linebacker as a sophomore, standing only 5-foot-5.
During his senior year, two speakers from ThreeSixty Journalism spoke to his class. They invited him to join the ThreeSixty Journalism camp in 2005. He learned what he was good at and how to talk to people.
Through ThreeSixty, students learned about shooting video, and that experience was when Chhoun knew what he wanted to do, he said. He went on to attend Normandale Community College for two years, then finished his bachelor’s degree at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities.
“I went with Dymanh to go to the University of Minnesota to apply to the journalism school,” said Dave Nimmer, a former journalist, journalism professor and leader at ThreeSixty. “I remember feeling really proud and so was he.”
Since then, Chhoun has worked as a videographer for news stations in Rochester and Duluth, as well as for the Big Ten Network. Now, he works for WCCO-TV, one of the most-watched news stations in the Twin Cities.
One story that has impacted Chhoun was the Jamar Clark shooting in November 2015. With his camera, he captured video of a man who was involved in the protest at the Minneapolis Police Fourth Precinct in north Minneapolis.
Afterward, the man broke down, Chhoun said. That experience hit Chhoun hard enough—he says he will never forget that story.
“He understands the world I don’t,” Nimmer said. “I’m an old white guy. He knows a world of immigrants, a world of color and a world of different cultures. He walks absolutely perfectly between them.”
Chhoun has gone through so much to get where he is today that he can’t resist offering advice to students who come to America as refugees: Get the help and support you need.
“After you get help, no matter how old you are or if you know English or not, go to school,” he said.
Chhoun also has a message for other students: He’s proof that you don’t have to be a genius “to have a good life or future. You just have to have the will to go to school and take an extra couple years to achieve what you want.”
“Kids in the Minneapolis Public Schools [district], no matter what color you are, know that I got in trouble,” he said. “It wasn’t because my parents didn’t teach me, but I didn’t want to be made fun of. At the end of the day, I couldn’t keep on doing this because I knew [I] won’t have a good future. I turned around by taking ThreeSixty Journalism, and I made it.”