By Joe Murchison

This is one of a series of profiles of candidates in Laurel’s mayoral race.

Sophady Uong (pronounced so-pah-dy oo-ong) wants to repay his adopted land for becoming “like heaven” to him after he survived the brutality of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

Sophady Uong
Sophady Uong
Courtesy of Sophady Uong

Uong was 7 years old in 1975 when the communist regime led by Pol Pot began a brutal four-year reign of terror. Uong, his father, pregnant mother and two siblings were ordered at gunpoint from their home in a city where his father was a teacher and mother a shop owner. They were marched 10 miles into the countryside, where they then lived in a hut that they built from coconut branches and palm tree leaves. They worked from sunrise to sunset clearing forests, planting rice paddies and doing other manual labor.

After six months, Uong’s father was separated from the family and sent to another work camp. Six months later, Uong was sent to a separate camp for teenagers. 

“I learned how to survive,” he said. “We hardly had anything to eat.” He consumed snails, frogs, fish and rats — anything he could find. Half of the teens in the  camp died of malnutrition or disease —or were executed. 

In 1979, Vietnam invaded Cambodia and expelled Pol Pot. During the fighting, Uong’s family managed to reunite and flee to Thailand. Two years and 10 refugee camps later, they were flown to Jacksonville, Fla., for resettlement. “We were able to regain our strength, our mind,” Uong said, although he added that his unimaginable childhood “still haunts me every day.” 

Uong was 14 when he entered a middle school in Jacksonville, Florida. He spoke almost no English; “the only thing I knew, was ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ … The only course I passed was math,” he said. “I flunked the first year.” By the end of high school, Uong was fluent in English, had immersed himself in American culture, was on the  honor-roll and had been accepted to the University of Florida.

He graduated six years later, in 1995, with a degree in civil engineering, having worked full-time for two of those years at an electric utility to help support his family. After graduating, he  took a job with a construction company in Atlanta.

Two years later, Uong married his high school sweetheart, Dorey, a fellow Cambodian refugee who also had earned a civil engineering degree. They moved back to Jacksonville, where he worked for a consulting engineering firm.

In 1999, he realized he was ready for a change. “I’d lived in Florida for many years and I was looking for something different,” he said. He and his wife both landed jobs with the Maryland Department of Transportation. They settled in Ellicott City with their two young children. Uong was involved in a number of highway projects, including construction of the Route 29/Route 216 interchange and renovation of the Route 29 bridge over I-495. 

In 2006, Uong was working with DOT on projects in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, and his wife was stationed in Baltimore. They bought a house in Laurel’s Villages at Wellington neighborhood. “We were looking for good schools and for a midpoint to commute,” he said. 

In 2008, Uong left DOT and went back to the private sector, working for private construction companies for the next nine years. In 2017, he joined the Prince George’s County Department of Public Works and Transportation as a construction manager.

Uong said he is ready for his next chapter, as both of his children have graduated from college, and he is a decade away from possible retirement. “I’m asking myself, ‘What are you going to do for the next 10 years?’” One answer: He wants to find ways to give back to his community and the country that rescued him.

He acknowledged that he doesn’t have political experience. “I’m running as a rookie, but don’t underestimate this rookie,” he said with a chuckle. 

If elected, Uong’s top priority as mayor would be to assure public safety, an issue heightened for him by unprovoked attacks on Asians across the country in recent years.

He would also strive to lower the city’s property-tax rate, secure more state and federal grants, support minority businesses, and celebrate the community’s diversity. “I would like to see more Asian and Hispanic community events,” he said. “I want to promote cultural awareness.” 

And Uong would like to serve as a model of success for  young people. “My childhood is different from any American childhood. Nothing was given. I had to learn to survive and to thrive. … I came to America with a bag of clothes. Forty years later, this is where I am. This is an inspiration story.”