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Cambodian Refugees in US Reflect on Failures in Resettlement

More needs to be done, they say, to help refugees resettle in order to prevent further suffering and future social problems.

As the United States commits to admitting 10,000 refugees from the current conflict in Syria, Cambodian refugees who arrived in the U.S. some 35 years ago say more needs to be done to help refugees resettle in order to prevent further suffering and future social problems.

“So I was told that freedom and opportunity was the key in coming here," said Sara Pol-Lim of Long Beach, California, home to the largest Cambodian community outside Cambodia. "But certainly what we were not prepared for was the language gap.”

Pol-Lim did not speak English when she arrived in the United States at age 14, with the horror of watching her three brothers die in the Khmer Rouge genocide still fresh in her mind.

“The last one that died in his sleep with me on the ground was the memorable moment of how he was trying to survive, trying to see 'if I hold on to life a little longer, maybe there is some grand freedom.' ”

Many of the refugees did see freedom in Long Beach, but with its own challenges.

“Nobody think about or pay attention to our mental health at all," said Cambodian community activist Chan Hopson. "They give us the help with basic necessity to survive physically, but emotionally, psychologically and mentally, we did not have that.”

Traumatic experiences

Many of the adult genocide survivors suffered post-traumatic stress disorder. Many women had lost their husbands and sons in Cambodia. Many of their children had to care and fend for themselves.

“Now we are seeing a transmission of trauma to second and third generation because there is never addressing the emotional support and emotional need,” Pol-Lim said.

“Even until now, they have chronic illness and some physical disability because of it," said Sophya Chum, who works with youths who share her background: American-born children of Cambodian refugees. "And I think those are the reasons why we are still struggling and we are still trying to survive. People cannot get jobs because of those things.”

Higher education is often unattainable because poverty plagues the Cambodian-American community. Alisha Sim said poverty caused her brother to steal a car, which resulted in his deportation.

“He started by stealing food, but then it got bigger," she said. "He started stealing car parts just to have a car for us, just to take us to places.”

Chum noted the lack "of support services, health services, academic services that actually help the refugees who first come to this country in order for them to be able to take care of themselves and their families.”

Some Cambodian refugees have formed their own groups to help fill the need. Hopson co-founded the Khmer Parent Association with her husband to help Cambodian families navigate the U.S. education system. She said the past failures in the resettlement process don’t have to be repeated if more help — "emotionally, psychologically, mentally, physically, socially" — is provided for new refugees.