On His Honor

Cambodian native Meng Lim 95C took the bench for the first time in January as superior court judge for the Tallapoosa judicial circuit in rural West Georgia. The first Asian American elected as superior court judge in Georgia, Lim escaped atrocities in his homeland as a child and overcame adversity as a refugee in his adoptive country to achieve professional and political success in a community that embraced him as its own.

By Maria M. Lameiras

Meng Lim

Meng Lim

Kay Hinton

Riding around Haralson County in his 1988 Oldsmobile Cutlass, Meng Lim points out the places that serve as the historical markers of his life in rural West Georgia. The first house his family lived in when moving to Bremen, Georgia. The church whose congregation became like family to them. The elementary school he attended. The building that housed his first law office, now home to a pawnshop. Like his car—which he bought for his mother after graduating from law school in 1998—these places are comfortable and familiar to him.

Last spring, Lim knocked on his neighbors’ doors throughout Haralson County and adjacent Polk County to stump as a candidate for superior court judge in the Tallapoosa judicial circuit. After a close primary election in May between Lim and Polk County attorneys Chuck Morris, Andrew Roper, and Vickey Atkins, Lim won a July runoff versus Morris to earn the bench.

“Lim stood out most of all in his home county, where Haralson voters turned out more than 2 to 1 in Lim’s favor. Haralson County turned out 2,174 to 927 in favor of their hometown candidate,” according to local newspaper the Polk Fish Wrap. In Polk County, the tally was 1,812 votes for Lim to 1,544 for Morris.

His campaign stood out partly because of the heavy use of social media, especially Facebook, by Lim and his supporters.

Lim’s Facebook page lists his hometown as Bremen, when in fact he was born more than eight thousand miles away in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in 1972. The youngest child of Se Lim, a school principal, and Anh Hue Tran Lim, a nurse, his family’s journey to the United States began in 1975 after the Khmer Rouge seized control of the country. Led by notorious Communist revolutionary Pol Pot, Khmer Rouge was the name given to the followers of the Communist Party of Kampuchea in Cambodia.

Following a ruthless agenda meant to prevent their overthrow, the Khmer Rouge exterminated anyone suspected of being capitalists or traitors, including almost anyone who was educated, ethnic minorities, professionals, and people connected to foreign governments.

Many of the new regime’s policies intended to force the country into its agrarian ideal disproportionately affected Lim’s family. His parents were both educated city dwellers and ethnically Chinese. Although his mother had been born in Cambodia, her mother was from China. Lim’s father had escaped his native land to Cambodia in 1949, after the Maoist government executed his own father, a landlord in China.

Before Lim’s birth, his father had fled the city out of fear with the couple’s oldest son. The rest of the family, including Lim’s mother; his middle brother, Lymeng; and his older sister, Siv Lang, were driven from their home in 1975 and forced into farm labor camps outside the city. Little more than a toddler, Lim was separated from his mother and siblings and settled in a one-room barracks with about a dozen other children, watched over by an adult loyal to the movement.

Each morning, the children were awakened at sunrise and marched to work in rice fields. Lim’s memories are spotty, but he recalls some incidents vividly.

“At noon, they would march us from the rice fields to the cafeteria to eat. One day, I remember I had to sit down underneath a tree because I was too weak to walk. When I gathered enough strength and got to the cafeteria, they had eaten all the food. That was one of the few things I remember that was bad,” Lim says, without bitterness. “Most of the experiences were surprisingly positive. We didn’t have toys, but we would play with all kinds of stuff. I remember catching crickets and fighting fish. We would make balls of clay, and that would be our medium of exchange.”

Other than periodic visits to the women’s camp to see his mother, Lim says life went on this way until 1979, when the Vietnamese armed forces invaded Cambodia in response to Cambodian aggression across its borders. As the Vietnamese made headway into the country, the Khmer Rouge soldiers and their supporters fled into the jungles and mountainsides, abandoning the work camps.

As soon as she was free of her guards, Lim’s mother raced to collect her children. She arranged for the older two to stay with a friend, then set out with her youngest son in tow to search for her missing husband with only a photograph and scraps of information to go on.

“She would hitch rides with army trucks sometimes, but mostly we walked,” Lim recalls. “She would ask any people we met if they had seen this man in the photo. Every time we got news about him, she would chase down that path, only to realize he was no longer there. ” Lim remembers the day, after scouring the Cambodian countryside for more than a month, when they finally found his father. But the joy was tempered with grief, as Lim’s oldest brother had contracted malaria while traveling with his father and died due to lack of medicine.

“It was really strange. I saw this man who my mom said was my father, but I’d never met him before. I remember them crying, and they talked for a long time, late into the night,” Lim says.

Once reunited, Lim and his parents traveled back to pick up his older brother and sister. Back together, the family resettled in a smaller city and tried to rebuild their lives.

While his father worked at any job he could find, Lim’s mother tried to do some basic nursing, but without medication there was little she could accomplish. She resorted to cooking whatever she could find to sell on the streets.

For about a year the family lived in a makeshift hut fashioned from bamboo and palm leaves. One night, a man with a knife came into the shelter and demanded the family’s money. Shaken, the Lims decided they would seek shelter in refugee camps that had been set up in neighboring Thailand to take in Cambodians fleeing the war. The family gathered a few treasured belongings and set out, traveling mostly at night to remain undetected, on a long, harrowing journey to the border. At the border, Lim’s parents paid a guide to take them into Thailand and to a Red Cross camp.

To a seven-year-old Lim, the camp was a chance to catch up on a lost childhood. “The Red Cross gave us toys and clothes, and there was a school there. Most of the time we would just play, and I remember learning to play Chinese chess,” he says. In the meantime, his father was desperately writing letters to friends and acquaintances around the world, seeking asylum for the family in another country.

It was eighteen months before the family was “called” by an Atlanta organization, Jewish Family and Career Services, who agreed to sponsor them in the United States. In preparation for the trip to the US, the family was transferred to another camp in Indonesia where they learned rudimentary English. Another six months passed before the day came for the family to fly to Atlanta. Lim remembers the anticipation of his first airplane flight and his mother giving him a handkerchief to put in his pocket and admonishing him that when they got to America he was to be careful not to throw trash on the streets.

When they landed in Atlanta, a host family took the Lims to an apartment that had been set up for them in College Park. The things that stand out in Lim’s mind from that first real home were a thirteen-inch, black-and-white television set and the freezer.

He and his siblings immediately started school, and his parents sought work. His mother soon found employment as a live-in nanny for a doctor’s family, forcing her to be away from her family during the week. His father, however, struggled with English and was frustrated with his inability to find a job. After about eight months in College Park, Lim’s parents were hired as custodians for the First Baptist Church in Bremen. The church provided them with a house just across the large asphalt parking lot from the sanctuary.

As the youngest of the family, Lim says he found learning English daunting at first, but quickly began to pick up the language.

“I remember when I finally could say my first sentence. After that I became the interpreter for my mom and dad when they went places where they needed me to help translate,” he says. “Probably because of that, my parents gave me a lot of freedom. That is mostly good, but sometimes it had its negative effect too. They gave me so much freedom that I did pretty much whatever I wanted to do.”

During this time, Lim’s older brother, Lymeng, was a positive role model for him, starting high school as soon as they arrived in Bremen and managing to complete his studies in four years while learning English. He went on to Dubuque University in Iowa for a year before finishing his business degree at West Georgia College in Carrollton.

“My brother really had to work hard to get this kind of education because he started so late. He would read his textbooks and translate them the night before class into Chinese, writing it in between the lines, so in class he would know what they were talking about,” Lim says.

Following his brother’s example, Lim excelled in school and did his part to contribute to the family.

David Tarpley, who volunteered with Lim’s campaign as public relations manager, recounts the story of when a thirteen-year-old Lim walked into his father’s convenience store, the People Pleaser, and asked for a job.

“Meng was in the eighth grade, and he told my father that he needed the job because he needed braces,” Tarpley says. “Some of the other kids had braces, so he wanted them too, but his family could not afford them.”

When Tarpley took over the store in 1989, he experienced firsthand the tireless work ethic and engaging personality that have been constants in his friend ever since.

“He was always so accommodating with customers, he always wanted to help people,” Tarpley says.

By the time he started high school, however, Lim’s home life had deteriorated. His father had become increasingly bitter and angry about struggling to make ends meet as a janitor when he had been an educator in Cambodia. He felt isolated in a community where he could not speak the language or drive.

“He was angry a lot and yelling,” Lim says. “My mother just tried to enjoy things; she adapted in everything she did. But my mom is very strong-minded too. When Dad got to a certain point, she began to push back. There was just constant arguing and fighting.”

It became difficult for Lim to concentrate in school, and he began skipping classes—sometimes going to the mall or out into the woods, but other times leaving town with a friend and not returning for days.

“You could only miss a certain number of days, and I was always at that limit,” Lim says.

In his junior year of high school, a Department of Family and Children Services (DFCS) caseworker went to the high school to ask some of the teachers if they knew of an emergency place for Lim to stay.

Art teacher Jim Watts overheard the plea.

“I’ve known Meng since he was in grade school, and I taught him art in the ninth grade. He was just an outstanding student. Any goal he set, he always made it,” Watts says. “I knew the caseworker, so I approached her and said if Meng needed a place to stay, we’d be able to take him.”

The next day the DFCS worker called Watts back to ask if he was serious about his offer. Watts called his wife, Becky, a third-grade teacher, who listened to the story and told her husband, “Bring him on home.”

The couple became official foster parents and did their best to make Lim feel safe and comfortable in their home.

“We have two younger children, a boy and a girl, and they were very jealous of Meng at first because we were pampering him to get him comfortable staying there,” Watts says. “Now they are as tight as can be.”

Lim describes his foster father as easygoing with “a really good heart.”

“He always impressed upon me to do something I would be happy about. I was intense all the time,” Lim says. “Asian parents want their children always to excel. He said that was good, but that I had to find something I wanted to do.”

Lim was particularly close to his foster mother, Becky, who died in 2013. “She was just very encouraging and understanding,” he says.

In a stable environment, Lim was able to concentrate on his work and extracurricular activities, starring on the wrestling team and becoming president of several clubs.

Although the Wattses became his guardians, Lim visited his parents often. His mother was happy he was getting the support he needed, but his father refused to speak to him for more than a year. In time Lim’s father realized his son was in an environment where he could succeed, and his attitude softened. By Lim’s senior year, the two families shared their pride and support of their son.

When it came time to apply to colleges, Watts asked Lim which schools he was considering.

“He told me he had only applied to Emory because that’s the only one he wanted to go to,” Watts says. “As you know, he ended up there.”

Valedictorian of his high school class, Lim chose Emory for its academic reputation. He applied only to Emory for practicality—he didn’t have the money to pay application fees to many different schools. He was accepted and received the Georgia Governor’s Scholarship, which is awarded to the state’s valedictorians, and other scholarship assistance.

At first, Lim felt lost at Emory.

“I’d graduated first in my class in high school, but it was really difficult for me. I had the pressure of going premed because that’s what my parents wanted—even though I don’t like hospitals and I don’t like to see blood,” he says.

Through the guidance of several key professors—including David Edwards, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Psychology; history professor Irwin Hyatt; and administrator Jody Usher—Lim switched his focus to prelaw, majoring in American history.

“Once I decided what I wanted to do, I could channel my energy again,” he says.

After Emory, Lim attended Mercer School of Law in Macon, with an interest in family and juvenile law, in part because of the struggles his own family has been through.

“I always enjoyed helping people because of my background, and I always liked the underdog,” Meng says, a characteristic smile lighting up his face.

When he finished law school, Lim returned to Haralson County as a clerk for the superior court he will now serve as a judge. Retired Superior Court Judge Marion Cummings was one of three superior court judges for the Tallapoosa circuit when Lim took a clerkship with the office.

“It was fairly intensive work because he was working with three judges in three counties. We had many difficult cases, but he is a very bright and capable young man and did the job quite well,” Cummings says.

It was years later that Cummings learned of Lim’s childhood in Cambodia and his journey to US citizenship. As a personal favor to his former clerk and longtime friend, Cummings presided over Lim’s swearing in as superior court judge at the Polk County Courthouse on December 4 in front of a courtroom packed with family, friends, supporters, and colleagues.

With his parents, Watts, his sister, and his children gathered around him, Lim swore to ““administer justice without respect to person and do equal rights to the poor and the rich.”

Lim and parents

Meng Lim (center) flanked by his parents, Se Lim (left) and Ahn Lim

Kay Hinton

Lim’s decisive election and the enthusiastic turnout to celebrate his swearing in belie the concern Cummings felt for his protégé when he began his law career.

“When he first left the clerkship and started practicing law, I wondered how he would be received in a rural setting,” Cummings says. “For him it was never a problem. He truly has lived the American dream.”

Lim credits his time with the court as one of the most important experiences in his career.

“I recognized, in addition to being the inevitable umpire for two battling lawyers, a good judge must possess a talented administrative ability to deal with the inherently huge caseload that overwhelms our courts,” Lim says. “It is not comforting for someone to wait in court all day only to be told to go home without having an opportunity to address his or her concerns.”

Upon completing his clerkship, Lim shared space with another attorney for a short time before opening his first solo law office in Buchanan, answering his own phones and doing his own administrative work until he could build his practice.

“I was so nervous about opening my own practice, I was working all the time,” says Lim.

An undercurrent in many of Lim’s stories is an insecurity that makes Lim seem both older and younger than his forty-two years. He says he has learned resilience and resolve from his mother, but his determination often seems to have been troubled by doubt.

“When my parents came over, they were so dependent on me to translate and understand things,” he says. “It was like I was on my own very early on. I had to take care of myself and plan things that other kids have their parents to help with. Because of all that I learned, when it comes down to it, no one is going to do anything for you. You have to do it yourself. It is hard for a child to learn that. It is lonely, but it makes you strong.”

During this time, Lim married Chonlada Tivitmahaisoon 93C 96N, whom he met while an undergraduate at Emory. In addition to his personal practice, he took on the role of city attorney in Buchanan from 2000 until 2005, when he was appointed Haralson County attorney. That same year, Lim and his wife welcomed their first child—Elizabeth Rebecca, named for Lim’s foster mother Becky Watts. The couple’s second child, Nicholas James—who bears his foster father’s name—was born in 2010, the same year Lim’s brother Lymeng was discharged from the US Navy.

Lymeng had joined the military at age thirty-seven after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, out of a desire to give back to his adopted country. He was enrolled at DeVry University’s Keller School of Management in Atlanta, working toward an MBA, when tragedy struck a family that had already borne more than its fair share.

On the morning of February 15, 2012, Lymeng was on his way to pick up his father in Tucker when an out-of-control driver slammed into Lymeng’s vehicle, killing him instantly. The hit-and-run driver remained at large for more than two years.

The grief and shock took their toll on Lim’s family and his marriage, and Lim and Tivitmahaisoon divorced later that year. The couple remains friends, and so both could have access to their children, Lim built a cottage for his ex-wife just feet from his home on the seventy-two acres he lives on in Haralson County.

In a small anteroom of his law office in Tallapoosa hangs a shadow box dedicated to Lim’s brother, including his US Navy portrait, military medals, and the folded American flag presented to his mother at his military interment in Georgia National Cemetery. Another frame holds his high school and college diplomas and his acceptance letter to graduate school.

The desire for justice for his brother and others was the impetus for Lim’s political run.

“I realized this might be the only opportunity I would ever have if I wanted to pursue a judgeship,” Lim says. “I confided in a friend, and he said, ‘If you don’t try, you’ll never know.’”

Although he knew many people in his home county, Lim rented billboards “to get my face out there” in neighboring Polk County. He canvassed neighborhoods in both counties, taking time to listen to citizens’ concerns.

“So many people came out to support me. They would remind me of things I had done for them,” says Lim, who is known in the community for performing pro bono work and for accepting nontraditional payment for legal work. He jokes that at one point his front yard began looking like a used car lot after he’d accepted the titles of several used vehicles as payment. Many of those vehicles he, in turn, gave to people who were down on their luck.

“I was taking cases just to help people out because people helped my family before. When my sister got married, people donated suits and dresses; when I was in school and I went on field trips, people would donate money because my family could not afford it,” he says. “I wanted to help the people here, too.”

Joining the trend of social media campaigning, Lim took to Facebook to gather support and to keep his base up-to-date on his campaign. Over the span of the campaign, his Facebook friends list grew from around one hundred to nearly 1,400.

“It just spread like wildfire,” Lim drawls in his unique combination of Southern and Chinese accents. “These people were really passionate about me, and their attitudes and their willingness to support me wholeheartedly helped me win.”

When Lim left Haralson County for Emory, then for law school at Mercer, Tarpley says it could have been his permanent ticket out of rural Georgia, a place where he’d always been in the minority, but he chose to return home to the community that had embraced him.

“We are very proud of Meng,” Tarpley says.

The weekend after the May primary—two years after Lymeng Lim’s accident—the suspect in his vehicular homicide was arrested in Gwinnett County after allegedly causing a second fatal accident. She is now awaiting trial on vehicular homicide charges in both DeKalb and Gwinnett Counties. Lim’s family is hopeful that justice might finally be served.

Justice on a much grander scale, but which still impacts the Lim family in a very personal way, also is taking place in Phnom Penh, where leaders of the Khmer Rouge are facing genocide charges for the bloody years they controlled Cambodia. Hearings began in October on far-reaching charges against the surviving senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge who were responsible for the deaths of 1.7 million people. Defendants Nuon Chea, eighty-eight, and Khieu Samphan, eighty-three, were sentenced to life in prison in August for masterminding the mass evacuations of Cambodians, the Lims among them, from their homes.

Lim’s father has chosen not to follow the trials, but his mother is interested in the outcome.

At seventy-nine, Anh Lim still lives on her own in a modest frame home in Bremen. On a recent afternoon, she was preparing for the change of seasons, sweeping between a jumble of potted plants ringing the carport of her home. She smiles warmly in welcome of her son and his guest, pulling out folding chairs and offering seats.

When a question in English escapes her grasp, her son translates into Cantonese, and she answers quickly, recalling the decision to leave Cambodia for a new life in the US.

“It was her only hope that I would have the chance to go to school and study hard,” Meng Lim translates.

In heavily accented English, she expresses gratitude that her family’s sacrifices have paid off for her son.

“My son has worked very hard. We are very happy and proud,” Anh Lim beams.

After winning the runoff election in July, Lim celebrated with friends, family, and supporters at a local restaurant in Haralson’s county seat of Buchanan until late into the night, then drove to his father’s home in Tucker to share the news of his victory.

“When I got there, it was so late he had gone to sleep already, so I just waited,” says Lim, who stayed awake through the night thinking back on his life and the new challenges ahead.

“I was going to wait until he woke up, but couldn’t wait any more, so early in the morning I woke him up and told him. He was really happy, and he gave me a hug. I don’t remember getting a hug from him. Ever. It was a long, big hug. That was really special.”

Father and son talked for a while; then Lim returned to Haralson County, where he immediately began pulling up his campaign signs.

“I didn’t want to litter,” he explains simply.

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