From the Mekong to the Mississippi: Sovatha’s river story

Sovatha Oum out in the field

FMR Youth Program Manager Sovatha Oum tells his river stories. (Photo by Tom Reiter) 

When I first arrived in Minnesota as a refugee from Cambodia at age 11, my late cousin introduced me to a river where we spent endless time together. Sometimes, we would fish. Sometimes we would go for hours without talking by its banks, listening. I remember hearing my first loon call.

That river, I later learned, is called the Mississippi River. The Mississippi River is not my first river, but it represents my present and future — my present in the sense that it’s still a place where I feel welcome and included without judgment. This was how I felt about the river as a new arrival in a strange land with strange customs, food and language. The river never cared about my differences. She gave me many hours of joy and solitude, allowing me to be a kid, even though I was new to this country. 

Seeing the past in the present Mississippi River

Many people see the Mississippi River as a place for recreational and family gatherings. I can’t help but also see it as a place where thriving cultures were brought to the brink of extinction, and many Indigenous people were shipped out and exiled via the river to a strange land and unfamiliar territory to fend for themselves.

In the Khmer culture, nature — particularly water — is a living, breathing thing and a keeper of stories. Like any body of water, a river, if you allow it, will tell you its darkest secrets. Stories were present way before the first foreign visitor set foot on that land we call Minnesota. When I’m near the Mississippi River, I imagine what the original inhabitants were doing at the same spot I’m standing on. I feel grateful to be on the land they still call home, trying to learn their stories as I make my own. 

"As a young refugee encountering the Mississippi for the first time, I would never have imagined in a million years that in the future I would come full circle, working to care for the river that welcomed me."

My first river: The Mekong

On the other hand, my home, Cambodia, represents my past, and the river that I call my first river is the Mekong River. Like the Mississippi River, the Mekong holds a lot of secrets, and is a place where grief, pain, loss and healing occur. Despite the horror that the Mekong played during the Cambodian Civil War, it was also a place that brought me joy and a place where I made good memories with my family and friends. I still remember those days today. 

Like life, rivers are constantly changing, evolving without us. But we must pay attention to what they are trying to teach us.

Coming full circle

My experiences with the Mississippi and the Mekong rivers are significant to my current role with the Friends of the Mississippi River and who I am today. As FMR’s youth program manager, I intentionally work the stories from the river into program lessons. I hope participants walk away learning something new about themselves and how they, too, can tap into the secret stories that the rivers hold.

We can’t change history, but we can right wrongs by better understanding ourselves, individually and collectively, and the role that we each play in the care of the Mississippi River. As a young refugee encountering the Mississippi for the first time, I would never have imagined in a million years that in the future I would come full circle, working to care for the river that welcomed me.


While good science and policy are necessary to protect the river, so are personal relationships and connections with the water and each other. To celebrate the way our own experiences with the river have led us to the work we do today, we're publishing a series of stories exploring our personal connections. 

Look for more stories in our enewsletter, Mississippi Messages. And if you join us at a volunteer event or another FMR gathering, we'd love to hear yours.

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