Taking Charge

In the Bronx, a community program trains a new generation of Southeast Asian leaders to reconcile a traumatic past and fight for the future.

January 11, 2010

Photographer Joshua Blake

ON THE FIRST FLOOR of a Bronx, NY, apartment just north of 193rd Street and the Grand Concourse, Touch Roth sits in a folding chair and fields questions from three teenagers. She wears a vibrant purple dress and green sandals. A Singer sewing machine rests on a table behind her and rows of framed photographs - one of a young family in Cambodia seated before a thatched hut - line the wall opposite her.

Roth, 65, narrowly survived the Khmer Rouge, the communist regime that controlled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. During that time, at least 1 .7 million Cambodians were killed as Pol Pot's regime attempted to reorganize Cambodia into an agrarian-based society, forcing many people into deadly labor camps. When Roth's American-raised children used to ask her about that period, she avoided the topic. Now Roth speaks quietly in Khmer through an interpreter.

"Even though we're small, we stay connected by staying together," she says about the community in the Bronx. "It's important to survive."

As Roth speaks, her 3-year-old granddaughter pokes her head around the corner of the hallway. In the next room a group of men sit on the cool floor and talk over the drone of the television. The air smells of steaming rice.

"I have to do everything for myself and my family - that's what keeps me going," she says.

She is asked if she would ever return to Cambodia.

"I don't know what I have left over there," she says. "I don't have any land. Nothing."

She gazes at a photograph on the wall, where a young man sits wearing a flimsy yellow sandal on his right foot. His left leg, from the knee down, is gone. The man, Roth's brother, lost his leg to a land mine.

In the room, Reamroatha Moeun, 17, leans against the wall, his shaved head tucked beneath the hood of his sweatshirt.

"What do you think about the youth today?" he asks, then waits for the question to be translated in Khmer.

Roth considers this.

"As long as the youth are continuing to lead, hopefully we'll see some change," she says.

Roth's son, Thoul Tong, walks down the hallway, scoops up Roth's granddaughter and holds her against his shoulder. The child and Tong, 33, listen quietly as Roth speaks.

In 1985, Tong's family came to the Fordham area of the Bronx from Cambodia, as part of 19,175 Cambodians who arrived in the United States to escape the civil war following the Khmer Rouge's collapse. Nearly 150,000 Cambodians arrived from 1975 through 2002, according to the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement.

"My mom likes to referto me as gaataport, or being born during the time of the Khmer," Tong says.

When his family first arrived, they were hopeful, Tong says, "knowing that a brighter future was ahead."

But soon, the challenges of adjusting to a new land and culture sank in. Tong and his friends clashed with local youth. Their parents, still in the grip of trauma, struggled to overcome language barriers and haunting memories. They worked to patch together a family structure that had been shattered by flight from war and violence. Some youth were lured into gang life to fit in with new peers or, as Tong asserts, to defend their families from harassment. Soon, Southeast Asian youth were fighting each other, prioritizing gang or block affiliations over shared history.

"Then it dawned on me," Tong says. "Didn't we just come from a place of torture and hardships?"

Tong, together with others in his generation, began to organize and push for a truce. They held meetings, spoke with elders and reached out beyond the Southeast Asian community.

Tong is now a staff member with CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities (aka Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence), a New York organization founded in 1986 that has organized for housing rights in Chinatown and welfare reform throughout the city. He set up the meeting between the teenagers and his mother as part of a CAAAV project that uses youth to document the experience of firstgeneration refugees.

Tong's mother began the meeting by apologizing for not speaking English. And the teenagers, standing shyly against the wall, strained to understand the Khmer. But now, after decades of silence, they are beginning to communicate.

"My generation is the one that connects the older generation to the youth. We are the bridge," Tong says.

CAAAVs program of training youth to document personal histories is part of a larger effort to confront lingering trauma in the Southeast Asian refugee community In the Bronx. Overlooked by other New Yorkers and forgotten by the resettlement agencies that brought them here, the community is trying to lift itself from a decades-long cycle of violence and poverty.

That strategy includes a focus on a new generation, born in the the United States and supplied with only stories of what happened before. Now, as they reach adulthood, they are defining their own place in their communities and in this country.

WHEN PRESIDENT Jimmy Carter signed the Refugee Act in 1980, he said the legislation would "help refugees in this country become self-sufficient and contributing members of society." As tens of thousands fled violence in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, the act was intended to enable the United States to take responsibility, finally, for the devastating effects of its policies in the region. "Clearly, the federal government must play an expanded role in refugee programs," Carter said.

By 1990, close to 1 million Southeast Asian refugees had arrived in American cities. Government relocation programs, providing scarce but vital services such as job training and English classes, struggled to keep up with the numbers.

But the Refugee Act set a deadline to cut off some services to refugees who did not become "self-sufficient" after three years. When the bill was considered, some lawmakers warned that 36 months was inadequate and that refugees' continuing needs would burden other social services. But supporters found new momentum for reducing government assistance during the Reagan administration.

Many refugees, cut off from federally funded services, were tunneled into public assistance programs already strained by local residents. Carter's promise of a new beginning for Southeast Asians slowly eroded.

"There wasn't a lot of infrastructure in place when the communities arrived, so they had to create it themselves," says Doua Thor, 31, the Laos-born executive director of the Southeast Asian Resource Action Center (SEARAC) in Washington, D. C.

In 1990, 10 percent of the US population lived in poverty. For Southeast Asians, the numbers were especially high: Hmong, 66 percent; Laotian, 67 percent; Cambodians, 47 percent; and Vietnamese, 34 percent, according to a SEARAC study based on census figures.

In the Bronx, arriving refugees found a severely poverty-stricken neighborhood. In 1990, the surrounding areas made up the nation's poorest congressional district, where more than one In three households received some form of public assistance. And the city's crack epidemic was well underway. Some refugees were bewildered by their new environment.

"Here on Andrews Avenue, some of the women and men were picking through the garbage to find food for their children," says Sister Jean Marshall, who began working with refugees in the Bronx in 1983 out of a nearby church basement. "They were wearing little pajama tops and bottoms and little coats - just freezing."

Some new arrivals asked Marshall for sewing machines and materials so they could earn income by tailoring. Many were farmers with little formal education, and tailoring was one of the few trades they felt they could market in their new city.

"But they needed more than that," says Marshall, who went on to found Saint Rita's Center, a community-based organization that received government funds to provide English classes and employment counseling to new arrivals.

The government had the right intentions, Marshall says, but in its rush to withhold services from those who missed quick deadlines, it created a deep hole of poverty that many have not yet escaped.

"You see a cycle of the same things happening because the policy solutions are still not in place," Thor says.

Recently, however, some Southeast Asian American communities have shown signs of greater civic engagement and stability. Thor points to New Orleans where, after Hurricane Katrina, the Vietnamese community joined with Thais, Cambodians and other Asians to fight for jobs and economic recovery; and to MinneapolisSt. Paul, where the Hmong community has drawn attention from local politicians seeking office.

"We're at a really critical point now," says Chhaya Chhoum, director of CAAAVs Youth Leadership Program, which confronts the community's problems by training youth to be facilitators and leaders. So far, the program has enabled youth to meet organizers outside the Southeast Asian community and to lead a project documenting older refugees' experiences.

By highlighting the role of youth, the community is finding a way to deal with past trauma, Chhoum says.

"Maybe it's time for some different leadership. Maybe it's time that we started trusting each other," she says.

CHHOUM STANDS on the second floor of the community center on Valentine Avenue, peering through windows at the street below. Two handcuffed young men are being led down the steps of an apartment building. A police van angles up to the curb and eight uniformed officers fan out on the sidewalk. A small crowd gathers.

"When we first came to the Bronx, it was literally burning," Chhoum says. Much has improved - citywide crime is down 28 percent since 2001 , according to police department statistics - but police presence is still strong, especially in schools. A 2006 report by the New York Civil Liberties Union found that the number of security officers in schools increased by 50 percent between 1995 and 2005.

"It's this constant fear that I think our community lives under," Chhoum says as sirens wail from the street. "Imagine the trauma that people lived through. And I think people are still living through traumatic experiences here in urban communities, when you have shootouts and police brutality."

She says the pressure is especially intense on youth; the staff regularly walks members home in groups so as to avoid conflicts with police.

Khamarin Nhann grew up in Barker, a neighborhood just northeast of Fordham, and first came to the center five years ago when he was 15. At the time, tension lingered between Southeast Asian youth in Fordham and in Barker, left over from the gang wars of the '90s. But as his trips to the community center grew frequent, he made friends with Cambodian and Vietnamese teenagers from Fordham.

"Coming here really opened my mind to all these possibilities that I wouldn't really get to see as a kid," he says.

Nhann, now 20, participated in CAAAVs project to document first-generation refugee experiences. When he interviewed his mother, it was the first time they had spoken of the past. She had lost all her siblings under the Khmer Rouge. Nhann gained a new understanding of the older generation.

"They can't fight for what they need," Nhann says. "The youth - we have the legs, we have the energy. We can go out there and lead the fight [against] all these injustices."

Once Nhann and other youth began talking to members of the older generation, they found that many suffered not only from physical ailments that afflict many Bronx residents - diabetes, asthma, hypertension - but also from special mental health needs stemming from past experiences. This finding became a central part of the youth campaign.

A 2005 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that, after two decades, 62 percent of Cambodians refugees in California still experienced post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and 51 percent still experienced depression.

In New York, one in four Vietnamese were identified to be at risk for depression, with the highest rate for those living in the Bronx, according to a 2007 study published by New York University's Center for the Study of Asian American Health. For the Cambodian community, the study's researchers found that sleep disturbance was common among 53 percent of residents. Chronic pain, fatigue and other physical difficulties were also frequent.

"Community members are very much experiencing PTSD and the after-effects of war," says Douglas Nam Le, co-author of the NYU study. He says many "have really just been surviving for the past 25 years. They came with nothing."

The 2007 study led CAAAV to outline specific demands to the local health provider, Montefiore Medical Center. Most of these demands focused on the Family Health Center, where Southeast Asians constitute 17 percent of the 35,000 patients per year, according to Dr. Zach Rosen, the center's medical director. CAAAVs recommendations include improved cultural training for medical staff, live Interpreters for patients and culturally appropriate treatment methods such as acupuncture.

The center has taken notice. Rosen points to a recent free acupuncture program, which filled up in the first month. But the program has yet to become permanent.

Rosen began working with Southeast Asian refugees in the Bronx as a medical resident in the mid-1980s. Twenty years later, the same problems remain for many of his patients.

"I ask them what they think about the current Khmer trials and their emotional state completely changes," Rosen says. "They get angry and agitated, and they say it's as if they left yesterday. I don't think those scars ever go away."

Chhaya Chhoum and her family spent five years in a refugee camp in Thailand, before relocating to the Philippines, and then finally arriving in the Bronx.

"How can you get over it?" asks Chhoum's mother, Ousara Sophuok. "If you have a lot of scars, it never heals. We just try to survive and accept it, and if you have support and you can talk about it, it helps. But it's very difficult to live with it."

Sophuok fears that as years go by, the past is in danger of being forgotten and, along with it, the essential health services.

"What the community really needs is to expand the [health] program," she says. "That's the only service we have here."

For Chhoum, health care is connected to a larger fight for cultural preservation. And the community's future may depend on members of different generations collaborating to address stillhealing wounds.

"Our idea is to bring dignity and value to our community," Chhoum says. "A lot of our old people are dying - from diseases and diabetes, cancer and heart disease - and it's up to us to really carry on the work that they've lost."

Dorian Merina is a freelance print and radio reporter based in New York. He is also a producer of Asia Pacific Forum, a weekly radio show on New York's WBAI 99.5 FM. He last wrote for Hyphen about a campaign by Filipino World War Il veterans to claim benefits promised to them by the US government.

Magazine Section: