Cambodian refugee discusses work, war

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Chhaya Chhoum grew up in the Bronx, living in a one-bedroom apartment with 10 to 15 other family members, no hot water and no heat. She is a Cambodian refugee whose family fled the country during the fall of the Khmer Rouge Regime, surviving multiple relocations only to be placed in conditions of extreme poverty and cultural ignorance.

Chhoum, who now works as a youth organizer in her old neighborhood, delivered a message of activism and change to a full Salomon 001 Monday night. Her lecture, entitled “We Have Every Right to be Against this War,” addressed issues facing the Southeast Asians in her community as well as the relevance of the Iraq War to immigrants like herself and her community.

Chhoum was introduced by VyVy Trinh ’11 and Alexander Vang ’10, co-programmers of Southeast Asian Heritage Week, of which the event was a part.

“Our stories are complicated,” said Trinh, who spoke of a shared history of colonization and oppression among Southeast Asian culture and called for “the politicization of Southeast Asian identity.”

Vang, who is one of only five Hmong students at Brown, shared his story of transitioning from a predominantly Hmong community in Fresno, Calif. to a heavily Caucasian community in Oklahoma, and then ultimately moving back to a Hmong community in Milwaukee.

At Brown, Vang said, he still feels left out.

“When you ask people what Hmong is, they say ‘Hmong? What’s that? Mongolian?'” he said.

For Chhoum, who has been working to establish health justice for Southeast Asian refugees, it is these issues of cultural identity that inform her work as a community organizer with the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence. For each of the demands that together comprise the committee’s plan for a comprehensive health clinic for refugees in her community, Chhoum shared the stories of community members that she heard while gathering data about health and social justice issues facing Southeast Asian refugees.

Chhoum began to tear up as she recounted how a 15-year-old boy in her community was made to translate for his own mother the news that she had just been diagnosed with fatal cancer because adequate translation services were not available.

“We’ve all translated for our parents,” she said. But “he had every right to feel anger at that moment” for being placed in that position, she continued.

In addition to access to a culturally sensitive health care system and adequate translation services, Chhoum said her organization also wants to see health care providers prioritize the hiring of staff from within the Southeast Asian community as well as expand day-to-day social services for those in need.

These changes, Chhoum said, must take place through the participation of the entire community, which, for her, often begins with youth realizing their potential to change the conditions in which they live and the community coming together as a whole.

“We don’t have money, but we do have people power,” she said. “We do have each other.”

Still, she said, her work is not easy.

“It takes a piece of me away all the time,” she said. “Sometimes I lose faith. … I wake up in the morning and I don’t know if I can go another day.”

Chhoum also addressed what she said is the unique relationship that Southeast Asian war refugees have to the Iraq War.

As a community made up of survivors of the Vietnam War and of the children and grandchildren of these survivors, the war “hasn’t been able to be stable … hasn’t been able to hold on to something,” she said.

“We are still living it, in our bodies and our minds,” she added. “This war has not ended for us.”

These feelings of personal and cultural loss and the reality of a ravaged homeland are issues that Chhoum said she believes Southeast Asians have in common with Iraqis – issues, she said, that need to be addressed.

“Let’s start talking about it. Let’s start fighting it,” she said.

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