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In Chicago, US-Cambodians Seek Political Voice

A group of Cambodians met in Chicago over the weekend to discuss ways their community might receive more attention.

Although they face a raft of problems from health to education, US-Cambodians say they remain underrepresented by policy makers. A group of Cambodians met in Chicago over the weekend to discuss ways their community might receive more attention.

Participants told VOA Khmer they want better representation, but that requires a stronger, more unified voice within their communities.

“There are two reasons why Cambodian community don't get much support and understanding,” said Van Sar, an organizer of the Chicago forum. “This is because, first, we don't have representatives within the US leadership. Secondly, we don't have a strong, joint voice from our civil society organizations to influence US policy.”

The forum, the first of its kind, was organized by the Cambodian Association in Illinois and the Khmer Alliance Foundation, in conjunction with the National Cambodian American Health Initiative.

A low percentage of Cambodians take advantage of opportunities in the US. Just more than 10 percent of Cambodian high schoolers graduate, according to statistics at the forum.

“Those who know the real need of our children's education are we the parents,” said Boeuy Te, a member of the National Education Association.

Of the Cambodians who do graduate with advanced degrees, he said, few work in government institutions where they might push to improve the lives of fellow Cambodians.

Low political participation in general was also discussed at the forum.

“Essentially, Cambodians should register to vote and go vote, all the time, from local to presidential elections,” Siv Sichan, a former US ambassador to the UN, said. “Here if we want our voice heard, we have to be active. And if we just stay home, our voice won't be heard.”

There are approximately 270,000 Cambodians living in the US. Only 60,000 have become full US citizens. That means a wide majority do not have the right to vote, an important part of gaining political attention.

That said, the Chicago forum did draw Mike Quigley, a Democrat for Illinois in the US House of Representatives.

“It's not one act,” he told VOA Khmer. “I think it's a relationship that builds from here. We've been in DC for a year now. We've learned a little bit about how to get things done. So I think working with my district office here and in Washington, DC, we'll sit down as often as we need to work out individual cases and broader issues. It's not one thing; it's a series of things.”