Khmer in America: Philadelphia Students and Organizations Work to Bring Change to Ethnic Community

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The disheartening tale of Cambodians in America is only one example of the hardships faced by immigrants who enter this country, immediately experiencing socioeconomic, cultural and educational adversity. For these immigrants it is both the quantity and quality of education they receive that sets them apart from the recurring story of immigrants who become a statistic.

As refugees, Cambodians arrived in the United States in the 1970’s and 80’s. They left behind war, genocide, lost loved ones, and trust in government and other social institutions. Cambodia, located in Southeast Asia was taken over in 1975 by the communist group, Khmer Rouge. According to the Cambodian Information Center, the Khmer Rouge became known as one of the most violent regimes of the century. This communist group is responsible for the deaths of approximately 1.7 million Cambodians.

For many of the refugees who were resettled in the Philadelphia area, home became the inner-city neighborhoods, with high crime rates, violence and gangs. For Cambodians and many immigrants, especially those who do not speak the language of their host country, this is the test which determines whether the ethnic group sinks or floats. For these Cambodians, their fragile cultural network was unable to withstand the pressures of their new environment and soon many youth became involved in gangs, and crime.

In American education system, Cambodian Americans were often overlooked or lumped with Asian Americans. The Khmer, by no means, were prepared to meet the expectations held of Chinese and Japanese Americans, who excelled in the classroom, particularly in math and science. This phenomenon, also known as the model minority myth, caused frustration among many Cambodians who later dropped out of school, deciding not to further their education. These issues followed Cambodian Americans through the years and in 2000, the U.S. Census revealed that more than 60 percent of Cambodian Americans had less than a high school education, thus, the underrepresentation of Cambodian Americans in institutions of higher learning. However, in states with a large Cambodian community, such as California and Pennsylvania, there are student organizations devoted to promoting the Khmer culture, and informing the general population of the group’s ethnicity and existence in the community and the universities.

At Temple University, located in North Philadelphia, PA, the Temple University Society for Khmer Students works to inform the mainstream Philadelphia population about Cambodia, its history and culture, as well as to provide positive role models for younger Cambodian Americans. Stacie Leap is the student adviser of the organization. Leap, born Sienh Leap, has had a remarkable educational experience. The daughter of Cambodian refugees, Leap was strongly encouraged to excel by her parents, who refused to see their child become a mere statistic.

“I was the first to go to high school, the first to graduate high school, and I’m the first to go to college,” says Leap. She was an A student and on the honor roll throughout her academic career. Leap is now in her fourth year of university taking six courses, majoring in Therapeutic Relations, with a minor in Public Health. While she currently has four jobs, Leap is leading three student organizations on Temple University’s main campus; she is also member of several other student organizations.

Both of Leap’s parents were in some way affected by the Khmer Rouge. Her father, who served as a soldier in the Vietnam War was jailed. After his release, he returned to his parent’s home only to find that the house has been severely destroyed by fire. Hoping to retrieve some of his belonging, he ventured inside only to find his parents’ remains rotting away.

“He was in his twenties, or thirties, I think. So he was traumatized for life and because of that anything dealing with war, [even] the war in Iraq, we turn off the T.V.,” says Leap. “The only thing that the T.V serves for is to watch our movies. But, as far as news broadcasts, we don’t watch that because if he sees the guns or the violence, people getting killed, he gets very emotional. It hurts him, but it hurts me to see my own dad being so upset.”

As for Leap’s mother, twice married, her first husband, a teacher, was shot and killed as part of the Khmer Rouge’s plan to rid the country of educated. Her mother also watched as members of the Khmer Rouge swung her first-born child towards a tree that near the family’s property. The child, a daughter a few months old, was instantly killed.

Danny Yem, David Pindara Sao, and Savonchanmonin Alexander Sao are members of the Temple University Society for Khmer Students (TUSKS). Yem and David Sao serve as executive and assistant directors. Yem is a junior at Temple University, majoring in Chemistry. David Sao is also a junior, majoring in biology, with hopes to go into nursing. Savonchanmonin Alexander Sao, Alex, is a second year student at the Community College of Philadelphia, CCP, pursuing nursing. Alex Sao, but was impressed with TUSKS and often travels to Temple, to partake in the organizations activities.

The family of David Sao, who was born in America, migrated to the United States in 1980.  First the family settled in California and once they were sponsored to Philadelphia, where we currently live,” says David Sao.

As Alex Sao puts it his family’s experience was “almost the exact thing.” “Before we were transferred, [sponsored] to America we actually lived in the border between Thailand and Cambodia. And that’s when we got shipped to California and then from California to Philadelphia,” Alex Sao explains.

While completing K-12, Yem, David Sao, and Alex Sao had little help from their parents. “They gave us the best support they could.  They really didn’t have much and couldn’t do much because they have a language barrier. So everything we do was for ourselves, by ourselves,” said Yem.

Like Leap, Yem, David Sao, and Alex Sao’s parents were determined to have them attend college. “My family pretty much pushed it,” says Yem. “It wasn’t really an option. Once you graduate high school, you were going to college. There are no ifs, ands, nor buts about it.”

These parents were directly attacking the issue of failing Khmer American students, who were entrapped by negative cultural pressures of the early 20 century to avoid the pull of crime, and gang activity. In doing so, these parents ensured that their children were focused on attaining an education while remaining within the roles of  a Khmer family network. Leap recalls that in elementary school she had many Cambodian American friends and peers.  “But when I was in high school, it was in North Philadelphia and there weren’t really that many Cambodians, there were more Koreans. I had more Korean friends, I’d just talk a couple of my Cambodian friends from elementary school, but because some of them dropped out or got pregnant and I wasn’t one of those, they stopped talking to me because they were busy or they felt like I wasn’t part of their lives anymore.”

In addition to their studies, Yem, David Sao, and Alex Sao practice Kickboxing. “It is like a Cambodian martial art, old martial art. We’re trying to compete against Moi Tai, it’s a sport from Thailand,” says David Sao. “There is a lot of history between the two. Basically Thailand was our Cambodian neighbor, and [we] shared culture, so Cambodia helped them build an army and warriors, I guess. When Cambodia needed help during the Khmer Rouge, that’s when martial arts was exposed to the world, after Bruce Lee died. Thailand took martial arts and claimed it as their own. Cambodia never had the chance to claim what was theirs, because they were stuck with the Civil War, during the Khmer Rouge,” explains David Sao.

“I am looking to open a kick boxing to school, show that Cambodians are everywhere. We just need to be known a little better,” says Alex Sao

Additionally, Cambodian community organizations are working with the support of members of the community to reintroduce the Khmer culture to its youth. Organizations such as the Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia, which works out of South Philadelphia to unify the Cambodian population living in Philadelphia, and provide links to aid and information available. CAGP provides youth classes that teach the Khmer language, and traditional dances.

As an immigrant community begins to recognize problems within, the community is able to work together to move away from socioeconomic, cultural and educational adversity. When Cambodian refugees first migrated to America, almost 40 years ago, money, a fragile cultural network, and a language barrier prevented the refugees from accelerating in society. With organizations such as TUSKS and CAGP working to provide Cambodian Americans with a formal and informal education, the community is on its way to becoming visible to the general public and becoming prominent members of society in Philadelphia.

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