A practicing lawyer in Boston, Amara Neng believes she is a lucky person — especially because she never would have had the opportunity to even go to law school had her parents not barely escaped the Killing Fields of Cambodia.
She feels an obligation to give back to those in need, and one way she does that is by leading Fuller Center Global Builders trips to Haiti. In the past year alone, she has served as co-leader on three different trips to The Fuller Center’s growing community there.
Amara took a break at the office Thursday to chat with us about her volunteer work.
Many people ask why do work outside the United States when there is plenty to be done at home. How would you respond to that?
There are a lot of resources in the United States. I think my focus is always on the people in the areas that I think are sometimes forgotten or neglected. For me, particularly with Haiti, my interest was even prior to the quake. I have close friends there … and I’ve always had a very strong interest in Haiti. And my background is Cambodian, so I think with places like Cambodia and Haiti, there’s just a lot of need and not a lot of attention on them and that’s where I want to be. I’ve also worked in Mexico and Thailand and Panama and other areas, but Haiti at the moment has my heart for many reasons.
When you say your background is Cambodian, what does that mean exactly?
My parents are genocide survivors. They left Cambodia in 1980 before I was even born, so I had the privilege of being born here in America. But in terms of horrible things they experienced there — most of my family members were killed in Cambodia, and my mom was one of two sisters out of five that survived, and in my Dad’s family, all except my aunts were killed. So the public interest of wanting to help was instilled in me because I’ve always recognized how lucky I am.
You travel a lot for service. Do you ever just pleasure travel?
I do. Well, I kinda mix the two. I always make a point when I’m in Haiti, I have friends there that I try to visit, and I’ve made friends there, and I go to a couple of orphanages. For me, that’s my idea of pleasure traveling. But I went to Panama last year after Haiti with Floating Doctors, and after that I went to Costa Rica for two weeks to enjoy myself. Every now and then, I get out somewhere other than a service-type trip.
Why else is Haiti so special to you?
It’s the people, really. I’ve seen in Haiti more than anywhere else I’ve ever been that you walk around and see the devastation and desperation, but the people there are just beautiful in terms of being appreciative and grateful and happy with what they have, which to us is so little. I love the people, and going back is good reality check for me. It makes me appreciate everything so much more. I’ve learned a lot from them and am very humbled by them.
You’ve been co-leading some of our trips to Haiti. Do you prefer being a co-leader as opposed to an individual leader?
No, I don’t have a preference. I just want the work to get done, and I want the momentum to keep going. So if it means stepping up to lead, I’m happy to do it. And I’ve had a couple of fun experiences co-leading, such as when I encountered the tropical storm last year and had to evac a team out. They closed the airports, and the whole country shut down, but we managed to get everybody out. I stayed because I was going to stay anyway, waiting for a team coming in another two weeks.
My job is demanding and I think maybe sometimes I should just step back and let somebody else lead. But there is a group of us who are co-leaders that have become really good friends, and that’s part of the appeal, too. We all just kind of agree together that we’ll do whatever we can to keep the momentum going. If it means four or five of us leading multiple trips a year, we’ll do it. We just want to see Lambi finished as soon as possible and get these people in homes as soon as possible.
As a lawyer, where is your focus?
Right now, my practice is focused on immigration and nationality law. I also do a lot of family reunification type of work. My interest really is in anti-trafficking work and asylum work.
Lastly, on your latest Global Builders bio sheet, you ended it with “Go Celtics and Red Sox.” Do you have something against the Boston Bruins and New England Patriots?
Oh, I love them, too. But I grew up a hardcore Celtics fan. My father knows all the players and their birth dates going back to the eighties, but he can’t remember my own birthday. You’re not allowed to be in my family unless you’re a Celtics fan. And the Red Sox thing is you have to be if you live in Boston.