About 30 minutes drive from one of the world’s top universities, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is the city of Lowell, home to more than 30,000 Cambodians.
Almost a fifth of Cambodians in the United States finish high school and about one in ten gain a bachelors degree or higher, but in Lowell those who manage to get through school often have to avoid the lure of drugs, gangs and the violence that comes with the territory.
Kiana Nem, 16, says her parents, who were first generation Cambodian-Americans, worked hard to keep her in school.
“My parents, they support me a lot for school. I try to look for a job now, but they say I should try to focus on school,” she said.
Similarly, 17-year-old high schooler Visaka In is looking forward to graduating and going to college.
“My mother definitely wants me to finish school, especially since I was the youngest child. So she definitely wants me to succeed like my siblings,” In said.
William Chan, 16, says the fact that his parents did not finish school has motivated him to try harder.
“They want me to be more capable of doing things and having more opportunities since I had an opportunity to be born here,” Chan said.
Parents in Lowell see education as a way for their children to not repeat the same mistakes as their parents, says Rithy Uong, a Cambodian American educator and a guidance counselor at Lowell High School.
“Most Cambodian students here are doing well. In the past 10 years, we had several Cambodian students graduating from the top of their classes, and some receiving scholarships to go to Stanford [University] and MIT,” he said.
Almost a third of the 4,000 students at the school are of Cambodian origin.
“Their parents today understand the importance of education, and they try to keep their children in school, and many students succeeded,” said Uong. “Some are now lawyers and pharmacists and many are owning small businesses.”
However, he continues, gang violence and substance abuse continues to be a problem for the youth in Lowell –currently one of the lowest income cities in Massachusetts.
In the 1990s, Tatyana Pheara Tuy, 37, and Sochenda Uch, 32, the children of Cambodian refugees who fled the Khmer Rouge regime, saw the explosion of gang-related violence in the city.
Tuy was a hard-working student and her parents did their best to keep her engaged with her studies.
“What they wanted to see was that you were not skipping school. You were not involved in gang violence. You were not pregnant,” she said.
Born in Battambang towards the end of the Khmer Rouge reign, Tuy arrived in the United States with her parents when she was four after living in the Cambodian-Thai refugee camps.
Uch was 12 when the wave of gang violence hit Lowell, in 1995. “When I was growing up, there were a lot of gangs,” he said. “All around me, the neighborhood, there were always bad things happening.”
Uch, a coordinator at Teen BLOCK, a project set up to empower young people in the community to be part of positive change, says it was tough coming to terms with the two cultures.
“I saw some of my friends pulled away from being good and joined gangs, and that affected their life to this day, because they made different decisions than I did.”
Organized by the Lowell Community Health Center, youth programs such as Teen BLOCK, have helped teaching many young people a valuable set of skills, such as leadership and entrepreneurship.
“We want to tell young people that there are different things that you can do, rather than drug or being part of gang, and even if you were part of the gang, how we can help you get out of that,” Uch said.
Many of the parents of these Cambodian-Americans have jobs, yet many more live on welfare and food stamps, or take more than one low-paid job to make ends meet.
Pheng Ang, a father of five, arrived in Lowell in 1987 with his wife.
Born in Srey Santhor district of Cambodia’s Kompong Cham province, Ang chose to work at a local bank, counting money, and his wife worked at a factory that produced plastic utensils, in order to support their kids in school.
“As refugees coming to a new land, living off the welfare, it took very hard work for us as parents, you know, to help guide the kids out of the gangs and stay in school,” he said.
Gangs and teenage pregnancy were big problems by the time Ang’s children started to grow up.
“My wife worked on the morning shift, and I worked on the afternoon shift. We did so because we didn’t want to leave the children all by themselves, because gangs were everywhere,” he said.
Today Ang, now 71, is a “happy father.” His eldest son is an engineer, another son a police officer, and a third a medical doctor.
But most are not so fortunate or came to the United States with English skills, as Ang did.
For Tatyana Phearea Tuy’s parents, “they had to pick up trash cans for a living in the past 20 years,” she said.
“Back then it was very tough for parents and their children,” said Uong. “Few speak proper English, while trying to make the ends meet, and facing security concerns due to gangs and robbery,” he added.