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Teen-Ager From Cambodia Says Freedom Spells Something Else For Her

February 22, 1986

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) _ Cambodian refugee Linn Yann, who came to this country knowing 10 words of English and won a spelling bee four years later, says she hopes a movie about her triumph will help teach Americans to cherish their freedom.

Sunday’s two-hour television movie, ″The Girl Who Spelled Freedom,″ traces the time after her family’s flight from the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia to her success in 1983 at a district bee.

Her correct spelling of ″acronym″ made her a celebrity and prompted a telephone call from President Reagan.

Now an eighth-grader at suburban Red Bank Junior High School, Linn, 15, describes herself as a typical American teen-ager who likes wild clothes and rock ‘n’ roll. With one exception.

″I just have a different meaning for the word freedom,″ she says in a voice accented with a light Southern cadence. ″To other kids, it means when their mom or father lets them go out or stay out late. To me, freedom is the opportunity to do whatever you wish - to talk to your friends or family, to be with your family, or to worship as you want.″

Linn was 5 when her family was forced into labor camps after the Khmer Rouge gained control of Cambodia. Her parents and five brothers and sisters had to dig ditches, build roads and work in the fields, she said.

Her father was murdered by Khmer Rouge soldiers when he became too ill to work, she said. The family escaped by walking 100 miles to Thailand and then came to Chattanooga in 1979 through refugee placement groups.

″It’s kind of sad for me to think back,″ she said. ″Back then, I couldn’t speak English and had a hard time. But now, here I am sitting watching myself on TV.″

Linn, a straight-A pupil who wants to be a doctor, knew only how to count to 10 when she arrived at the home of sponsors George and Prissy Thrash.

She soon enrolled in school and began studying up to three hours a day to prepare for a spelling bee at age 12.

The Thrashes said they noticed something special in Linn.

″The way Linn stands out is her tenaciousness,″ said Thrash, who has kept in close contact with Linn and her family.

″When they arrived, they were very sick and they were frightened and the children all huddled around their mother,″ Thrash said. ″Linn’s eyes were bright, she was taking it all in. You could tell she was afraid too, but her eyes were just alive.″

Linn’s victory in the local district contest was capped by a telephone call from Reagan and a mention in his speech before the American Newspaper Publishers Association.

She finished 10th that year in the county bee and was a runner-up in 1984. She reached the national finals in Washington, D.C., last year, but tripped on ″verdigris.″

The $2.5 million movie, filmed in Vancouver, British Columbia, stars Mary Kay Place and Wayne Rogers as the Thrashes and Jade Chinn of Vancouver as Linn. The movie is directed by Simon Winer, and is a cooperative effort among Disney Studios, ABC, ITC Productions.

Money from the sale of the story rights was put into a college fund for the Yann children, Thrash said.

Linn and her family have taken the filming of her story in stride: ″As far as they’re concerned, this happens to everybody. They think the entire United States of America is Disneyland,″ he said.

″For instance when Linn won the spelling bee, President Reagan called her on the telephone in school. That afternoon as I’m taking her home, she asked me, ’George, when President Reagan calls you, what do you talk about?‴

Linn said she doesn’t plan to enter this year’s spelling bee, the last time she’ll be eligible. Trying out for the cheerleading squad, running track and other activities keep her too busy, she said.

″My dream was to make it to Washington and hopefully meet the president and I did that,″ she said.

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