Trauma rooted in genocide, Cambodian youth in Long Beach confront ‘historical forgetting’

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Youthful rebellion can come in many guises, from being anti-Google to defending animal rights. But for an all-female group of Cambodian American teens in Long Beach, home to the country’s largest Cambodian community, the target of their adolescent disaffection is their parents’ generational hopelessness.

“We felt the word ‘action’ was important,” said Sophya Chum, an organizer for Khmer Girls in Action, an activist group whose members, young Cambodian American women, surveyed some 500 of their 1.5-generation (those who immigrated to the U.S. as children) and second-generation peers to better understand the issues affecting their lives. Their findings are the basis of Show Youth the Love, a health and wellness forum held last month.

The survey, completed two years ago, shed light on the ricochet effect of trauma on refugee families – families “caught in the process of historical forgetting,” in the words of Jonathan H.X. Lee, an assistant professor of Asian American studies at San Francisco State University. Many of the girls’ parents arrived in Long Beach in the early 1980s after fleeing the “killing fields” of the Khmer Rouge regime, a genocide that resulted in an estimated 1.7 to 2 million deaths. Survivors of unimaginable horror, many have kept their stories untold, creating a generation of silence that has taken a profound toll on their children.

The peer survey revealed some sobering statistics. Nearly half of the respondents reported symptoms of depression, including loneliness, fear, insomnia, cutting and other self-harming acts. Most – especially young males – said they experienced discriminatory treatment at school, with 1 in 3 saying they were frequently stopped or pulled over by police. The survey also addressed cultural stigmas about safe sex and pregnancy prevention.

“Stuff about our body is kind of taboo to talk about with your family,” said 16-year-old Amanda Em. “We’re kind of reserved. It’s awkward to bring up, so everyone ignores it.”

Khmer girls face a particular set of challenges, frequently juggling multiple roles within the family. Young women often serve as translators for non-English-speaking parents, helping them navigate doctors’ appointments, Social Security and the like, and also are expected to take care of younger siblings. The pressure to maintain “Khmerness” – as well as do well in school – can cause intense stress.

“We’re having to balance all these ways of having to be,” said Sada Ang, a 16-year-old KGA member.

The group’s boisterous headquarters is close to Anaheim Street, the main drag of Cambodian Long Beach, where sumptuous banquet halls serving sour catfish soup stand alongside with pawn shops, jewelry stores and centers for Cambodian dance and martial arts. Cambodia Town, officially recognized by the Long Beach City Council in 2007, is a hub for the approximately 44,000 Cambodians living in Los Angeles and Orange counties.

The city has been the unofficial Cambodian Capital of America since the late 1950s and early 1960s, when Long Beach State University, now CSU Long Beach, hosted more than 100 engineering students from Cambodia. As political instability grew at home, dozens moved permanently to Long Beach, establishing a familial toehold. By the mid-1980s, the city had at least 35,000 Cambodian residents, making it the largest Cambodian community outside Cambodia.

It has not been an easy road: A study that appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2005, the first and only psychiatric survey of Cambodian refugees two decades after resettlement, reported that 62 percent of first-generation Cambodian refugees in Long Beach suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. According to the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, 36 percent of Cambodians in Southern California live below the federal poverty line. They also have the highest rate of being uninsured of any Southeast Asian ethnic group.

The consequences for children have been profound: Cambodian American youth have had high rates of teen pregnancy, truancy and gang involvement. Linda Trinh Vo, an associate professor at UC Irvine, observes that PTSD and severe depression “impacts both parents’ ability to make a living and engage in their children’s lives.” The result, she said, as the KGA study points out, can be depression that often goes untreated.

RELATED: Child of the Killing Fields (Video)

Like many parents, professor Lee’s parents did not want to verbally relive the past. Lee said the couple never got a chance to properly grieve the death of his fourth sister, who died while the family was en route to refugee camps in Thailand and Hong Kong.

Although a small wave of Cambodians arrived from 1975 to 1978, the majority settled later in dilapidated public housing projects and were “left to fend for themselves,” Lee said. In the 1980s, racial tensions between young Cambodians and Latinos in Long Beach resulted in much-publicized gang violence. As a result, he said, “many young people disassociated themselves from their own ethnic heritage and identity. They called themselves ‘Asian American’ if they wanted to succeed.”

Darith Ung, a Khmer language teacher at Wilson Classical High School, where about 300 of the 4,000 students are Cambodian American, talks to students about the “killing fields,” a subject that is off-limits in many families. He tells them about the murders of intellectuals and teachers, about children like himself torn away from their families and villages to work in child labor camps. At age 12, he was forced to work in the fields without food, hunting for grasshoppers and snails at night.

“For four years, we were always hungry,” he tells his students. “The animals were our competition.”

Many young people are surprised to hear these stories, which help explain what has been left unsaid at home.

“We’re young,” Em said. “We’re supposed to be having fun. But when I see my parents or grandparents down in the dumps, it makes me cry at night.”

Khmer Girls in Action was founded to provide a warm, safe space – with “powerful sisterhood” posters on the walls – for women to support each other and gain leadership skills. Its members are campaigning for on-site high school wellness centers and are planning a youth health fair this spring.

“There’s a huge need, particularly around mental health,” said Justine May Calma, a staff member. Many young people do not have access to transportation, she noted, which makes it difficult to seek help.

“There has been a lack of a sense of ownership of our community,” said Lian Cheun, the group’s executive director. “We’re tired of hopelessness.”

Vichet Chhuon, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota, who lived in Long Beach, said young activists like the members of KGA and EM3 (Educated Men with Meaningful Messages), an all-male group that successfully lobbied city officials to improve sidewalks, pedestrian crossings and traffic lights near schools, are radically redefining what it means to be a Cambodian American youth.

“It used to mean being poor and being seen as a dropout or a gangster,” Chhuon said. “But to these young people, being Cambodian means being a survivor, an activist, coming from an incredibly resilient tradition of people.”

Monique Ung, 18, a senior at Wilson High, considers KGA an anchoring presence. Her KGA sisters encouraged her to apply to college and helped with application and financial aid forms.

“Without KGA, I can’t even picture myself,” she said. “It’s helped me find out who I really am.”

This story was edited by Robert Salladay and copy edited by Nikki Frick and Christine Lee.

California Watch is part of the independent, nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting, the country’s largest investigative reporting team.For more, visit

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