When thousands of Cambodian refugees arrived in America in the 1980s, they were in a country where they didn’t fit in but had no country to return home to. In order to survive, they banded together and formed strong communities in cities across the country: Los Angeles, Seattle, Boston and Olney.
Now, 30 years later, they’ve reached a comfortable level of assimilation, but are fighting a different battle to keep their culture alive.
In the first decade, many had trouble assimilating into American society and finding economic success. Hardly any were able to speak English, so the community was functionally locked out of the civic system and job opportunities. Left to fend for themselves, the Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia was originally formed to aid Cambodians through the process of resettling and creating a life in America.
“It originally started as a relief organization for people who came as refugees from Cambodia to help them meet their basic needs, which includes housing, food and clothing – the resettlement process basically. From then on, the needs have changed and the people have changed, so now we’re focusing on community involvement, social, economical and education and helping people become self sufficient,” said Rorng Sorn, the executive director of the CAGP.
Although the decennial census does not record a precise Cambodian population, the CAGP estimates that there approximately 20,000 living within the city.
Each year, the CAGP helps an estimated 1,000 people with a variety of issues, including housing, translations, education and the citizenship process.
After resettlement, the CAGP altered its social services to match the changing needs of Olney’s Cambodians. Now it primarily functions as a go-to problem-solving center for a wide range of issues – “You name it, from A to Z,” said Sorn– and also runs programs intended to include families in the health system and the political process.
Last month the CAGP held a flu clinic where workers gave out hundreds of vaccines, and during the election season volunteers spent time phone banking to get local Cambodians out to the polls.
Now that Olney’s Cambodian community is getting on its feet, the focus of the CAGP’s services has turned to the growing generation of Cambodian-Americans. Many of them already speak English and are fully assimilated through public schooling. Instead, the CAGP offers courses intend to instill the growing generation with a sense of pride in their heritage and forge a lasting community.
Every April, the CAGP hosts a New Year’s celebration that brings Cambodians from Olney and the surrounding area together for one day of tradition. Sorn estimates that 500 people attended the last celebration, which included a traditional dinner, live bands and classical dancing with students from the CAGP’s cultural classes.
Each Sunday, the center hosts lessons in Khmer language and traditional dance targeted toward young Cambodians.
Chantha Chum teaches the ancient language to a classroom full of students every Sunday, and is thankful that the Cambodian community in Olney has progressed to a point where it is able to open up its culture to others.
“When I was growing up there was no information about Cambodian culture because we came here as refugees. All of us were dispersed, separated in different places, so we couldn’t get together to learn about Khmer heritage. There’s not a lot of information out there, and the parents don’t want to talk about their bad experience.”
She agrees that it’s important though for the community to always be aware of its roots, especially in a country as diverse as America.
“I think it’s important, because you have to know who you are in order to fully engage in this society. In America, everybody is so diverse, so everybody needs to find their place,” said Chum.
Anthony Majewski has been involved with the CAGP his entire life, and now takes his daughter to the culture classes every Sunday. He believes that now, more than ever, it’s important for Cambodian-Americans to have a heritage and identity to hold on to.
“I think it helps her because in a multicultural society it helps her to identify who she is inside that society. I don’t want her to lose that identity. I think it’s an important part of her, and half of her family is that identity, so for her to understand and be a part of that I think is a good thing,” said Majewski.
More than anything though, he believes it’s a place for Cambodians of all ages and levels of assimilation to come together and bond over that common heritage and identity.
“It’s a safe zone. It’s a place where they can come and identify with people and speak the language and people understand what they’re saying. It helps reduce some of their fears about coming to a strange part of the world.”