A bit of explanation. My daughter Abby is a Peace Corps Volunteer in Cambodia. When I visited her in 2013, the father of the family she lives with gave me a photo of a man he’d known in a Thai refugee camp in the 1980’s. His friend had immigrated to America. Could I find him? Abby translated the impossibility of this to two middle-aged men,in Khmer and English. Abby’s Cambodian father insisted. Abby’s American father agreed to do what I could. I recalled that the Catholic Church kept careful lists of Irish immigrants to America in the 1840’s; perhaps similar accounts exist for those who escaped the killing fields.
With only a first name and a twenty-year-old photo, I contacted CMAA. Eventually, my query wended through Catholic Charities and the UN High Commission on Refugees, to no avail. In the meantime, CMAA had purchased a light industrial shell in the middle of Lowell’s Cambodian neighborhood and asked me to help them convert it into office and meeting space. They moved in last year, but I had not seen the completed construction. CMAA seemed a perfect first stop on my odyssey.
CMAA is a modern day settlement house, not unlike those founded by Jane Addams over 125 years ago. It’s a lean operation. Sakieth Sako Long, Director of Programs, was manning the reception desk when I arrived. Brian Chen worked at the consultation station nearby.
The essence of CMAA’s work boils down to three components: community, language, and work. Lowell is the second largest Cambodian community in the United States (Long Beach, CA is larger). According to the census, there are over 30,0000 Cambodians in Lowell, though Sakieth believes there are more. When the United States began bringing Cambodian refugees to the U.S in the late 1970’s, Lowell was one of several host communities, but soon became a magnet. Many Cambodians in Lowell landed in other places, and then sought out this former mill city.
Brian explained how there was a single Cambodian store in 1980. Thirty-five years later, Lowell’s Cambodians have moved from a small minority to a major force. There are dozens of Cambodian businesses. Cambodians teach in the public schools, serve as police, and two have sat on the City Council. The Lowell Sun’s 2014 Woman of the Year was Bopha Malone, President of CMAA’s Board of Directors, and Lowell’s mayor recently visited Cambodia.
Language is a major obstacle for immigrant integration. During the hour I spent at CMAA an ESL class in the adjacent classroom recited personal pronouns, while several elderly Khmer arrived, government forms in hand, seeking clarification. Although Brain explained that all the first generation children are fluent in English, and some have already lost Khmer, there is still a steady influx of immigrants and elderly who have not mastered English.
Executive Director Sovanna Pouv is a 34-year-old encapsulation of Lowell’s Cambodian transition. The slight, energetic man came to Chicago when he was one, moved to Lowell at age eight, worked a variety of jobs both public and private before taking the helm at CMAA a year ago. He gave me a tour of the offices, which are filled Cambodian art.
Brain’s desk is in front of a mural-size painting of stone carvings similar to those at Angkor Wat. When I told him about my visit there in 2013, he said he had visited five times. He choked up at the memory of that sacred place and the civilization it represented. “Angkor Wat makes you feel proud.” But when I asked him “How will we live tomorrow?” the middle-aged man who has been at CMAA for eighteen years, owns a house in Lowell and has two teenage children in the Lowell schools did not dwell on his homeland. “Some day I want to visit the Grand Canyon.”
Souvanna Pouv begged off my direct question, “Let me think on that and send you something.” Yet his actions at CMAA answer it in a very tangible way. “We hare having our first Citizenship Clinic here this weekend. People who have been working on their applications will come together. We’ll have attorneys and social workers to review and help complete everything. I kept putting off my own citizenship; I didn’t get it until I was 27. But the goal is to have people finish up everything they need and have 50 applications in the mail by the end of the day.”
Within one generation these foreigners have become the mainstream.