A Vietnam-era refugee turned bartender turned philanthropist who believes that human generosity transcends politics.
Sambonn Lek, bartender at the St. Regis hotel near the White House, has shaken and stirred for movers and shakers since the Carter administration. At 66, he leads a disappearing fraternity: barkeeps who know their regulars’ names and favorite cocktails, and when they drink so much of the latter that they forget the former, find them a ride home.
When it’s quiet, he breaks out his repertoire of magic tricks, which in the days before the fire marshal stepped in included “breathing fire” by blowing a mouthful of spirits past a flame.
Lek’s greatest act, though, is performed daily in his native Cambodia, with the help of his affluent patrons. He is a Vietnam-era refugee turned philanthropist, collecting spare change and big checks from customers to fund Sam Relief, which builds schools, digs wells, and provides food, clothing and medical and school supplies in his native Cambodia. Since 2000, his nonprofit has built 27 schools, dug nearly 400 wells, delivered 290 tons of rice and awarded 120 scholarships to Cambodian schoolchildren.
Lek, who said he escaped Cambodia’s genocide and poverty because the United States opened its doors to him, believes that human generosity transcends politics. Over two decades, his patrons of both parties have proved him right.
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“Sam is one of these rare people who found his calling in life, and it shows,” said Kevin Moore, owner of Moore Communications & Associates, in Danbury, Connecticut, who met Lek two decades ago and has donated to Sam Relief most years since.
Lek has long been a local personality, his various career moves tracked by the restaurant industry and the local news media. And while a showman behind the bar, Lek smiles and grows quiet when asked about the emotions underpinning his effort. “That I came here was so lucky,” he said.
He arrived in the United States as an English-language student in 1974, barely a year after the U.S. bombing of Cambodia. A year later, Cambodia fell to the communist Khmer Rouge. Its leader, Pol Pot, set on creating an agrarian utopia, wiped out the nation’s intellectuals and middle class and killed around 2 million people.
Lek’s father, a diplomat, and his mother, who were both living abroad, received asylum in France the following year. The United States offered refugee status to Cambodians studying here during the overthrow and Lek was among the lucky ones. He studied at the University of the District of Columbia, then Montgomery College until, in need of money, he left his studies before earning a degree.
He recalls the exact date, April 7, 1976, that he landed a bartending job in the Town & Country Lounge, in the landmark Mayflower Hotel a few blocks from the White House. Soon afterward, he married Nara Sok, a fellow refugee he had met at a friend’s wedding. The couple has two children: Bonnary, 38, whose name means “lucky woman,” and Benjamin, 36. Lek became an American citizen in 1980.
A clubby, wood-paneled establishment that opened in 1948, the Town & Country had a storied past and a long list of influential imbibers, including former Prime Minister Bertie Ahern of Ireland and Eliot Spitzer, a former New York governor who drank there before meeting prostitutes in the Mayflower’s Room 871.
What Lek noticed most, though, was “the food people threw away,” he said. “I thought, ‘Oh God, people could eat this.’”
Lek’s mixology and magic tricks drew regulars who became friends. In 1998, Lek’s mother died, leaving him $2,500. In keeping with his Buddhist faith, he used the money to buy “rice for the poor people who don’t have food and clothing for children to attend school.” He told a few patrons, who contributed, too, and Sam Relief was born.
In its early days, “Sam would take the money there on his summer vacation, go into the villages and buy rice himself to make sure it got delivered,” said James Meyers, a bassist in a jazz band called The Loungers, who has known Lek since the 1970s. Mayflower patrons sometimes tagged along, helping deliver.
Lek kept binders behind the bar with lists of donors and photographs of the works they had funded. William Batdorf, a patron and accountant now deceased, drew up paperwork to “make me 501(c)3 legal,” Lek said.
Sam Relief’s website says it costs $55,000 to build a five-room school and $250 to dig a well. A donation of $2,500 buys school supplies for 500 students for a year, $350 buys a ton of rice and $25 pays a teacher’s salary for a month. Lek is apolitical and his donors come from across the political spectrum.
Philip Hoffman, a former Republican Michigan state senator who owned a lobbying firm, met Lek on a trip to Washington around 2001. “We developed a friendship right after Sam set up the relief fund and I’d donate to it,” Hoffman said in an interview. “For wedding gifts, we would give a couple a ton of rice,” donated to Cambodian families in their names, he said.
In 2006, Lek asked the Hoffmans to fund a school. “We prayed on it and thought, ‘If we didn’t do it, who would?’” Hoffman recalled. The school was named Lumen Christi, after Hoffman’s high school in Jackson, Michigan. Sam Relief built six schools that year.
“Sam’s exuberance was what really convinced me to get involved. He didn’t have any government foundation backing him up, there was nothing off the top for Sam, it was 100 percent for his people,” Hoffman said. The Hoffmans later funded another school, named Pax Christi. “My only regret is that I didn’t do 20 schools,” Hoffman said.
Andi Drimmer, a computer programmer from Gaithersburg, Maryland, has never met Sam but read about him in The Washington Post in 2013, shortly after she inherited money from her mother, just as he did. She has paid for 16 wells so far.
In 2011, the Town & Country closed, giving way to trendier pubs. Lek worked in the Mayflower’s new bar, but it wasn’t the same, and in late 2013 he and Nara decided to return to Cambodia, continue their charity work and relax.
But their children missed them and “some of my guests were emailing, ‘Come back,’” Lek said. He and Nara realized “America is our home,” he said, adding, “My heart and spirit were here.”
Through friends, he learned that Marriott, which owns the Mayflower, was looking for a bartender for its St. Regis hotel bar. Lek got the job a week later. “Good karma came back to me,” he said.
Lek returned last winter after four years away, to a Trump-era Washington. The city is more expensive than ever, and asylum-seekers, some of his patrons said, don’t seem to garner the same sympathy as when he arrived, a skinny student who escaped the killing fields and built an American family. But his friends hadn’t forgotten him.
Washington is known more for power politics than humanitarian works. What inspired these people to fork over thousands of dollars to a bartender with a story? Moore had an answer.
“Despite what might be interpreted as a meanness in today’s world, there’s an impulse to help. We all are our brother’s keepers,” he said. “People like Sam remind us of that.”