Cambodian-Americans in three U.S. cities were recognized at an awards ceremony in October for assisting members of their communities.
The honored work included helping rehabilitate prisoners, empowering girls and women, and lobbying about rights in the U.S. legal system.
The Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC), a U.S.-based non-profit, held an awards reception this month at the Renaissance Hotel in downtown Washington DC.
Many Uch received the Individual Changemaker award, while the group Khmer Girls in Action won the Transformative Movement Builder award and ReleaseMN8, another group, won the Campaign of the Year award. Three other groups also were honored.
Uch said that he created the group FIGHT (Former Incarcerated Group Healing Together) in 2015 in Seattle to provide support to Asian-American prisoners in Washington state, in the Pacific Northwest.
“I don’t look forward to getting an award or anything for my work and stuff,’’ he told VOA Khmer before the reception. ‘’We do it out of compassion. We do it out of redemption. We want to make the world a better place.”
Uch served prison time in the mid-1990s for driving a getaway car during a robbery and was placed in immigration detention for another two years, he said. During his time behind bars, he began to read and take community college courses, becoming a mentor for other inmates.
After he was released he spent his time as a social worker and was granted a pardon by the state governor in 2010, according to his online biography.
“What the [justice] system offers is not enough,” Uch said. “It’s only there to punish you and make you worse, or you’re not learning anything productive or to better yourself.”
The father of two says community support plays a vital role in helping prisoners improve themselves to be able to contribute positively to society upon release. “If you don’t do anything, they come back out the same person.”
Sophal Ear, a SEARAC board member, and prominent Cambodia analyst, said he was proud of what the winners had accomplished.
“They don’t get paid very much as leaders in non-profit organizations and as volunteers. And so the only thing you can give them is recognition for the hard work they’re doing,” Ear said after the reception.
Khmer Girls in Action organizes training courses and helps empower women and supports gender equality. It is based in Long Beach CA., home to more than 50,000 Cambodians.
Khmer Girls in Action executive director Lian Cheun said that as many as 60 women attended the group’s training courses each week. She noted that gender equality was not widespread in the Cambodian-American community.
“Often times in our culture, girls, and women are not valued as much as boys,’’ Lian Cheun told VOA Khmer at the event. ‘’And in our organization, we uplift girls and women, because we value them and we want them to see themselves as equal. We value their leadership.”
The third recipient, ReleaseMN8, was created as a lobby group in Minneapolis to campaign for the release of eight Cambodian residents of the US who were jailed and faced deportation to Cambodia from the Midwestern state of Minnesota.
Montha Chum, one of the group’s co-founders, said solidarity among minority groups was crucial in demanding rights and justice for their communities.
“When you come together, and organize and get along, and are there for one another in this time of crisis and doing the work that we've done, it really just shows that being a united is amazing,” she said.
The group has grown and now campaigns nationally through public rallies, community education, and awareness raising, against the forced deportation of Asian residents in the U.S. who serve time after convictions.
“What is happening right now to the Cambodian community, and to the Vietnamese community, to our Southeast Asian community is wrong and it's unjust,” Chum added.
After the awards reception finished, Catherina Nou, chair of SEARAC, told VOA: “I hope that it [the awards] continues to motivate them to continue doing their work because they know that there is a community behind them.”