40 years after the Killing Fields, deep issues remain for Cambodian-Americans

Charles Som Nguyen May 8, 2015 0
Charles Som Nguyen's photograph (1984) of his grandma, mother, and uncles' ID cards to go to the United States.

Charles Som Nguyen’s photograph (1984) of his grandma, mother, and uncles’ ID cards to go to the United States.

April 17, 2015 marked the 40th anniversary of the fall of Phnom Penh by the Khmer Rouge, which was the start of a horrific four-year long genocide that claimed the lives of an estimated 2 million Cambodians, or nearly a quarter of the population (Cambodian Genocide Program). The genocide’s legacy of trauma and loss reverberates across generations and continues to affect Cambodian-Americans today through social injustices.

I was recently interviewed by Jeannie Yandel from Seattle’s NPR station, KUOW, about my family’s experience during the genocide. My mother lost five out of 10 family members during the genocide and vividly recalls stories of her brothers and sister dying in her arms from starvation, malnutrition, and disease. Since my grandfather worked for the former government and was in danger of being killed, my mother remembers lying about her background to save her family from execution, and several instances where my grandmother was almost killed by Khmer Rouge cadre. She recalls seeing mass executions and stepping over corpses on their seemingly endless marches to work camps around the country.

The Khmer Rouge attempted to create an extreme Marxist, purely agrarian utopia that in reality became a hellish dystopia. During their only four-year regime, roughly 90 percent of the country’s intellectuals, educators, minorities, people in the arts, religious leaders, and anyone connected to the former government were disposed (Cambodian Odyssey). The brutal regime carried out horrific crimes against humanity in killing fields and the infamous top-secret prison camp, Tuol Sleng or S-21. Although several top Khmer Rouge leaders have been convicted of war crimes and genocide, controversies regarding the current government’s opposition against further prosecutions in the Khmer Rouge Tribunal continue to prolong justice and unanswered questions for millions of victims. The issues are compounded by the fact that many Cambodian government officials, including prime minister Hun Sen, are former Khmer Rouge cadre.

"Only family photograph (1965) that has survived the genocide," Charles Som Nguyen said. "This is a picture of my mom’s older sister and older brother (both are deceased)."

“Only family photograph (1965) that has survived the genocide,” Charles Som Nguyen said. “This is a picture of my mom’s older sister and older brother (both are deceased).”

The Cambodian genocide was largely unknown to the outside world until the Hollywood movie The Killing Fields was released in 1984. During the 1980s, tens of thousands of Cambodian refugees came to the United States, including my grandmother, mother, and uncle. Currently, Washington state has the third highest concentration of Cambodians in the United States, most of which live in the Seattle-Tacoma metropolitan area.

Although 40 years have passed since the genocide, Cambodian-Americans continue to struggle with issues such as high poverty rates and low educational attainment. In Washington, 18.2 percent of Cambodian families are living in poverty, compared to 9.4 percent of families in the entire state (U.S. Census Bureau, 2011-2013 American Community Survey). Drop-out rates remain high: only 68 percent of Cambodians have graduated high school compared to 90.2 percent in the state (U.S. Census). Also, only 13.6 percent of Cambodian-Americans have a Bachelors degree or higher, compared to 32.1 percent for the state (U.S. Census).

The low educational attainment of Cambodian-Americans severely prevents social mobility and perpetuates cycles of poverty for younger generations. In addition, 35.9 percent of Cambodian-Americans in Washington report that they speak English less than “very well” (U.S. Census). Low levels of education and English language proficiency make it difficult for Cambodian-Americans to be civically engaged and advocate for their rights.

In addition, the data refutes the myth of Asians as the “Model Minority,” which purports that Asians regularly academically and financially out-perform their peers. As a whole, 45.6 percent for Asians have a bachelor’s degree of higher, which is higher than the state average (U.S. Census). However, we have seen above that the rates for Cambodians are more than three times less. The aggregation of Cambodians under the umbrella of “Asian” leaves Cambodian-Americans out of important policy decisions that will improve their socioeconomic status.

Khao-I-Dang Refugee Camp in Thailand (1983). "My grandma paid 10 baht to have this picture taken and sent to potential sponsors in America," Charles Som Nguyen said.

Khao-I-Dang Refugee Camp in Thailand (1983). “My grandma paid 10 baht to have this picture taken and sent to potential sponsors in America,” Charles Som Nguyen said.

Significant progress has been made toward disaggregating data and revealing hidden opportunity gaps through the 2015 Washington State iCount Report. However, more efforts must be made to bring the report to the attention of policy makers. In addition, the reinstatement of UW’s Southeast Asian recruiter position is a major step toward the right direction, but much work is needed to help retain students once they matriculate.

Cambodian-American survivors of the genocide also suffer from very high levels of mental illness. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) estimates that 62 percent suffer from PTSD and 52 percent suffer from depression, which rank among the highest of any ethnic group. This is shockingly high compared 7-8 percent and 6.7 percent of all U.S. adults experiencing PTSD and major depression as reported by the National Center for PTSD and NIMH. An untold number remain undiagnosed and untreated due to stigma in the Cambodian community surrounding mental illness, as well as a reluctance to talk openly about the traumas Cambodians have faced during and after the genocide. In addition, the previously mentioned low levels of English proficiency in the community make it difficult to communicate with healthcare providers and learn how to seek help.

Low educational outcomes, high poverty rates, and high rates of mental illness in Cambodian-Americans continue to plague our families today. However, through civic engagement and increased awareness of disaggregated data among the public, we can give a voice to silenced members of the community and continue to heal.

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