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'Shared Suffering' Fora Highlight Trauma, History

A "Shared Suffering, Shared Resilience" forum was held in Lowell, Mass., earlier this month, the second of ten such fora to be held targeting Cambodian-Americans, many of whom suffer from post-traumatic stress following experiences under the Khmer Rouge.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is caused by war, terrorism or natural disasters, and affects all nations, communities and individuals, directly or indirectly. In 2005, 162 million people worldwide were subjected to experiences that could lead to PTSD, according to the Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress. Nearly 30 percent of Cambodians suffer from the disorder, according to research by the World Health Organization.

The "Shared Suffering" forum in Lowell, held by the Applied Social Research Institute of Cambodia, sought to address the issue, and despite poor weather that caused a change in venue, around 100 people participated.

Dr. Nou Leakhena, founding director of the institute, said her research showed that 33 years after the Khmer Rouge, Cambodian communities still struggle with feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, which lead to damaging behavior such as gambling,alcoholism and domestic violence.

The "Shared Suffering" fora are meant to help Khmer Rouge victims share their experiences and to help prevent future genocides.

"They are a talking testimony of history, and their stories are valuable not only to history, but to policy-makers and lawmakers to ensure this kind of atrocity never happens again," she said. "Not only in the context of Cambodia, but worldwide.

Teddy Yoshikami, director of program development at the institute, said the forum helped communication and a process of healing.

Victims needed "to communicate more of this story, and all the suffering that happened...and then the healing process begins," she said.

The forum also helps educate Americans about world events and immigrant communities.

"For us, that's important work," said Dr. John Kuo Wei Tchen, founding director of the Asia/Pacific/American Institute at New York University, which supports the forum. "It can educate the American public about ongoing issues, Asian Americans in this country and[reduce] stereotypes of people that we often have.

The forum can also help as testimony for the Khmer Rouge tribunal, now underway in Cambodia and set for its first trial, of prison chief Duch, next year.

"This is a rare opportunity, in which those who have left Cambodia will have a chance to talk about what happened to them and to give testimony," Tchen said. "So this forum is a way of preparing for the actual testimony that people will be giving at the tribunal.

Chhan Touch, a Khmer Rouge victim and forum participant, said he was honored to testify so that a younger generation would be aware of Cambodia's history.

"Khmers, both those in the United States and those in Cambodia, need to share," he said. "Khmers in the United States have also been through difficulties under the Khmer Rouge. Although we are now in America, our voices can be heard in Cambodia, so this can be evidence for the Khmer Rouge tribunal.

Most of the organizers of the forum did not experience the Khmer Rouge, but they remain committed to holding the forum not only for the victims, but to confront a universal problem.

"Well, it's a cultural and moral obligation for me, as a Cambodian woman, as a Cambodian, as a Cambodian academic," Nou Leakhena said."It is my responsibility to use my academic status as a medical sociologist, as a faculty member of a university, to help promote greater understanding about the Khmer Rouge's history as it has impacted our communities."

Yoshikami, who is Japanese and was born in concentration camp during World War II, said she is well aware of the suffering and denial of rights faced by victims. Her parents, like many Cambodian parents, do not talk about their traumatic experiences, she said.

"When you know the reality of what has been happening, it is so much more important now than ever to really begin to support each other globally and to maintain human rights and justice around the world," she said. "Otherwise, we are going to destroy ourselves.

The next "Shared Suffering" forum will be held in Portland, Oregon, in June 2009.