Cambodia to Arizona: Bo Dul’s extraordinary journey to democracy
Sambo “Bo” Dul wasn’t born in a democracy.
Her father gave his life to smuggle her and her family out of Cambodia following the Khmer Rouge genocide.
Thirty-five years later, she’s a crucial cog in Arizona’s elections.
On January 7, Secretary of State Katie Hobbs tapped Dul, a former election law attorney at Perkins Coie, to be her elections director.
“It was very hard to think of leaving [Perkins Coie], but I also couldn’t not think about it,” Dul said. “It was like once that genie came out of the bottle, I couldn’t put it back in.”
Dul was born in Cambodia at one of the most tumultuous times in the country’s history.
Her family fled the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge genocide when she was just a year old.
The trek to a refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodian border was perilous. Her father didn’t survive.
Pure luck may have been all that kept Dul, her pregnant mother and siblings alive.
Crying babies aren’t ideal for quietly fleeing a country, so her family slipped Dula sleeping pill before the trip.
As the Duls approached the Thai-Cambodian border under the cover of night, the sleeping pill wore off. Dul, finding herself in the arms of a stranger as her mother had grown too weary to carry her, started wailing.
That might’ve been the end, but the wind was blowing away from the soldiers lining the border, carrying the sound of her cries in the opposite direction. She was carried to safety.
She lived in the camp on the Cambodian-Thai border until she was 5.
Her family arrived in the United States as refugees in the 1980s.
Her mother, Leng Poch Dul, didn’t speak English, so Dul was in charge of completing her family’s immigration paperwork and securing their place in the U.S.
While in high school, the Dul family’s immigration status was renewed for another year, but something had gone wrong with her paperwork and immigrations officials couldn’t pinpoint the problem even after she skipped school in Tempe to go to the immigration office in Phoenix.
Her experience highlighted how bureaucratic errors could plunge the lives of immigrants into a tailspin of anxiety, anger and even resignation.
“At some point, I was just like what can I do? There’s nothing I can do?” she said.
It took nearly a year for Dul to find out that someone had misfiled her paperwork. All this time, she feared deportation.
Dul later became a U.S. citizen, and took full advantage of what America has to offer.
She graduated summa cum laude with three degrees from Arizona State University, and went on to simultaneously earn a law degree from New York University and a master’s degree in public affairs from Princeton University. She built a successful law career and a family of her own.
And she set out to help others like her family through a pro bono immigration law program called the Phoenix Legal Action Network or PLAN.
Telling her story isn’t always easy, but it’s evenmore important now than ever to combat misinformation about other immigrants who fought so hard to get to America, she said.
Dul said it’s important to share what she went through – and what she does now – out of love for America, Arizona and democracy. Stories like hers prove that immigrants can be “patriots,” too.
Attorney Roopali Desai had made the call and given the pitch.
Desai was on Hobbs’ transition team and charged with finding someone to lead the elections office. Dul is more than just competent, Desai said.
Like Dul, Desai is a woman of color in the legal community. They met years ago and the two have been fast friends for so long that Desai can barely remember how they met.
The Secretary of State’s Office is a service organization and no one could connect with people quite like Dul, not after everything she experienced in life, Desai said.
“You can’t train people to have that kind of perspective. When you have and you own that kind of perspective because you’ve lived it, it’s invaluable,” she said.
When she made the pitch, Dul had just made partner at Perkins Coie.
Dul took it all in and was silent at first. But the next day, she agreed to apply.
Desai said she later learned that the idea of serving the public enticed Dul. Everything else that people usually think about when considering a new job was secondary.
“It wasn’t about how much she would make or what this could do for her professional trajectory. It was more about this moment,” Desai said.
Hobbs’ gain was Perkins Coie’s loss.
Attorney Dan Barr, who worked with her at the firm, described Dul as extraordinary, brilliant, a force of nature.
“As you can tell, I’m sort of a fan,” he said.
Dul impressed Barr in her early days with the firm, and that hasn’t stopped.
He recalled the first time she ever delivered an opening statement in court. She was representing a Native American prisoner who was not being allowed to practice his religion.
The judge kept interrupting Dul’s opening with questions.
What might have shaken any seasoned lawyer didn’t faze Dul. She just dealt with it as if she were a seasoned attorney, Barr said.
Shortly after the 2016 election, Dul and a group of young lawyers formed PLAN, which provides free legal services to immigrants who couldn’t afford legal aid. In some ways, the formation of PLAN was a direct reaction to the election of President Donald Trump, Barr said.
Barr, who runs the pro bono program at Perkins Coie, remembers Dul coming into his office one day with the proposal and a request for $150,000. Perkins Coie gave a similar amount of money to the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project, which offers free legal work for detained immigrants and those facing deportation. Dul’s program would help people before their situations got so dire.
Barr anticipates Dul improving the frayed relationships with the state’s county elections officials.
That’s because “everybody likes Bo,” but also because he expects Dul to improve the elections manual and make it more useful to local election officials and others.
But perhaps most importantly, he’s counting on her to run fair elections and make voting as accessible as possible.
Mere weeks after starting at the Secretary of State’s Office, Dul spoke to the Arizona Asian Chamber of Commerce as part of the group’s annual Lunar New Year celebration.
She spoke about her new job, her childhood, her family’s journey to the United States and her career.
She issued a call to action – to register to vote and exercise that right consistently. Asian-Americans have the lowest turnout of any minority community in America, and Asian-Americans will not be full members of the community until everyone votes, and makes their voices heard, she said.
That was just the beginning for Dul.
“Phoenix and America welcomed my family many years ago,” she said. “We worked hard to get on our own two feet. Now that we’ve done that, I think we have a duty to work hard to give back.”