Savin Kent was a young mother in Cambodia with two small children when her family set off for the United States in 1963. What began as a one-year trip abroad stretched into a lifetime in an adopted country. High energy and an independent spirit helped Savin succeed in a new land. She built a rewarding hair salon business, helped put her two children through the University of Maryland, and navigated through challenges with a loving marriage. Born Savin Or, an eldest daughter in rural Cambodia, she only finished elementary school because that was all they had in the village. Her mother didn't want to send her far away to finish school.
When she was 19, her parents arranged for her to marry Kroch Kent, a former Buddhist monk for 10 years who was a dozen years older.Kroch was working at the U.S. Embassy. A job offer for him to become an international news broadcaster for Voice of America brought the family to Washington, D.C. They settled down in suburban Maryland, and bonded with the small number of Cambodian families in the area, meeting for dinners or picnics along the Potomac River. In the summer, they caravanned to the beach.The family enjoyed exploring. They visited monuments around the District. Once they took a road trip to Florida to see the Apollo 11 launch. Savin enjoyed meeting people all along the way, her daughter Riddhini Alexander recalled.Never one to sit still, Savin learned to navigate bus lines through sometimes-dangerous neighborhoods so she could take English classes and attend beauty school. In the late 1960s, she got a job at a hair salon in Temple Hills, Maryland. Quickly she became one of the most popular hairdressers in the shop, and within a few years, she was offered a chance to buy the business.She worked six days a week at Savin’s Hairstylist, and she loved what she did. Savin was known for her shampoo and set skills, and the women who came in every week to have their hair conditioned and curled, and to linger beneath the hair dryers, became lasting friends.
It became increasingly clear that it would be too dangerous for them to return to their home in Cambodia. Savin’s father was killed in the late 1970s in a genocide inflicted by the Khmer Rouge, the brutal ruling party. By 1981, the Kents became U.S. citizens, and Kroch sponsored Savin’s siblings and her mother to come to the United States. Her children recall their parent’s marriage as loving and companionable. He cleaned when she cooked. He tended to the vegetable garden while she pruned the roses. He kept the books for her shop. It was devastating for Savin when he died unexpectedly in June 1999, at the age of 70. Her work helped her through this lonely time, says her son, Gunvuddhi Kent. She also enjoyed doting on her grandchildren and cooking for her family, making their favorite marinated beef skewers or banana tapioca pudding. Thanksgiving was a favorite holiday, because she could cook all day. Even when she was a guest, she would arrive with her car filled with dishes she had painstakingly prepared.She was independent -- cutting her own grass and shoveling her own driveway well into her 70’s -- and had little interest in retiring. She worked until two years ago, when she was 75.
She was fiercely loyal to her customers. As they grew old together, she took extra care with those who needed walkers or had health problems. She told her daughter that she did not want to leave work because one of her customers had terminal cancer and she wanted to be there for her. Now she lives in a memory care unit at the Crossings in Chantilly, and many days she says she’d still like to be back at work.