A photo essay by Seng So, APEN State Organizer
Forty-four years ago on April 17th, 1975, Khmer Rouge forces entered Cambodia’s capital seeking to implement an agrarian revolution. Families were torn apart and forced into labor camps throughout Cambodia’s countryside. Between 1975 and 1979 under Khmer Rouge rule, over two million Cambodians perished from torture, death, starvation and forced labor. The Cambodian Genocide also known as “The Killing Fields” has shaped the lives of Cambodians home and abroad.
Today, Cambodians in the diaspora are emerging beyond the identity of the genocide. We are in a moment of a cultural renaissance — from music and the arts, to food and crafts, to education and tech. There is an energy and life that is taking shape in our community. I wrote this letter to Cambodia, reflecting on our growth as a community in America.
Last night I saw you sitting next to my bed, whispering lullabies in a language that has since left my tongue. Momma was in her late twenties the last time she pressed her feet against the softness of your soil. I was twenty-five when we first met. I had traveled across the Pacific to bury my grandmother. And there you were.
You were smiling. But there was a deep sadness in your eyes. You missed us, it had been too long. I saw the scars they left on you and dropped to my knees. We had fled when the dark clouds rolled in. You stayed because you were resilient. You knew that the nightmare would soon fade.
Even in the whirlwind you made sure to shelter us. You gave rise to a people that withstood. That carried you with them. A people that remembered to dance. To celebrate. To love.
Some four decades later, here we are. Did you get the last postcard I sent you? Our family has grown. The last time you saw Momma there were only four of us, now there are eight. We’ve become activists, artists, doctors, lawyers, renowned chefs, engineers, musicians and working-class folk raising our families the best we know how. Some of us are still trying to find our way. Yet, through it all we still keep you in our thoughts.
The old folks are still gossiping, still waiting for the green grass to grow. They talk about home, about you, about the children. Last month we were all in the streets trying to keep our families together. Can you believe it? After all the storms we’ve weathered, they want to tear apart our home again.
The monks are praying. In April we celebrated the New Year. I saw Momma dancing. Do you remember the last time she danced? I even heard her singing. She sang a lullaby in a language that has since left my tongue and I fell asleep dreaming of our tomorrows.
Since 2002, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has carried out a series of devastating raids on Southeast Asian refugee communities. The current administration is ramping up deportations of refugees. Many across the country have been mobilizing to end deportations: grassroots organizations such as the Southeast Asian Freedom Network (SEAFN) and the Southeast Asia Resource Center (SEARAC) are working non-stop to keep families together. If you or a loved one is facing deportation proceedings, please call (415) 952–0413 or visit searaids.org for more information. #KeepFamiliesTogether
Photos by Seng So. All rights reserved.