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Rodari is raising Iowans’ awareness


When Surasee Rodari applied for his first job in the United States, the job interviewer told him, “There is no way someone like you could work here.” Rodari, who works for Bankers Trust Co. and serves as human rights commissioner for Des Moines, doesn’t remember who summarily turned him away.

“I wish I did remember his name,” he said. “He’d hear from me.”

Rodari didn’t know his rights then. Thirty-two years ago, he moved to the United States from Thailand, full of dreams fueled by movies, photographs and stories told by his uncle, who lived in Victor, Iowa. He moved in with his uncle while still in high school. When Rodari had pictured America, he imagined big cities, like New York and Los Angeles. Instead he ended up in a town of about 1,000 people. It was a shock after living in Bangkok, a city of 10 million.

“I told my mother, ‘You’ll never believe it. Uncle has a cow in his back yard,'” he recalled.

After high school, he attended Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, then the University of Northern Iowa, from which he graduated in 1978 with a degree in business accounting. After the disappointment of his first job interview, his confidence was shattered. He found a job washing dishes for Iowa Methodist Medical Center.

“I thought I’d never have a chance,” he said. “I felt like a second-class citizen. I think that’s how a lot of immigrants felt.”

After six months washing dishes, Rodari applied for a higher-paying janitorial position with the Des Moines Register & Tribune Co.

“The man who interviewed me looked at my history and my qualifications and said, ‘Why are your applying to be a janitor?'” Rodari said. “He told me there was an opening at Bankers Trust and that I should apply. He said if I didn’t get that job, I could come back and we would discuss the janitor job.”

Bankers Trust hired Rodari and assigned him to its reconciling department, which processes smaller banks’ paperwork. After a few years, he moved to the research department, where he learned more about banking. Rodari said he wanted to try many different roles in the company and work his way up the ladder.

Eventually, he approached Bankers Trust’s retail banking department with a proposition: The state’s Southeast Asian population was booming, and the company had much to gain from earning their trust. There were no openings in the department, so they turned him down. He was not discouraged. He did research on his own, and began visiting the bank’s branches, presenting seminars on the U.S. banking system to refugees.

Rodari persuaded the company to let him serve as a floater from branch to branch, substituting for regular workers who were sick or on vacation. This would make him more available to the immigrant community. The bank agreed, and eventually he was made manager, then assistant vice president. He is currently a vice president and branch manager, working out of the office at 150 E. Euclid Ave.

“The future is a lot brighter today,” Rodari said. “I love Iowa, and I love America. There are so many opportunities here.” He credits former Gov. Robert Ray with welcoming Asian refugees into the state and encouraging the state’s residents to accept them.

Now Rodari is an advocate for Iowa’s Asian-American population. He is treasurer and a board member for the Iowa Asian Alliance, which represents and promotes the business, economic and community development Iowa’s Asian-American community, and of the Asian American Council, which focuses on cultural education. The AAC holds events to bring all Iowans together to celebrate and learn. In the coming months, it will hold celebrations for the Cambodian and Laotian new years, a Japan festival and on May 22 CelebrAsain, the Asian Heritage Festival at Des Moines Water Works Park. More information is available at www.iowaasianalliance.com. Rodari received the Governor’s Volunteer Award in 2001 and was nominated for East Des Moines’ Citizen of the Year in 2002.

Rodari is proud of how far he and Iowa’s Asian community have come. He has a few regrets. He wishes he had known his rights in the early days of his career, and that he and his wife, Teui, had taught their children their native tongue.

“We didn’t speak Thai in our house,” he said. “We wanted to fit in so badly. We didn’t realize we were punishing our kids. I would like to tell people, don’t be ashamed to speak your language and teach your children your culture.”

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