Torn Between Two Cultures : Homesick Cambodian Pulled Apart as Door Shuts on Family

Times Staff Writer

Chhim Sem sits in his sparsely furnished apartment near Golden Hill. He speaks no English, does not own a car and suffers from a kidney problem. He shares the apartment with his wife and four children.

Like many Cambodians in San Diego, Chhim, 69, is torn between staying here, where he is homesick and separated from relatives, and eventually returning to his war-torn homeland, where the murderous Khmer Rouge is now the strongest of three resistance factions opposing a Vietnamese-backed government.

Chhim longs for a country he cannot yet return to, and is unhappy in a country he cannot call home. The freedom here is little consolation now that family reunification--an integral part of many Asian cultures--has become almost impossible, Chhim says.

“The freedom here is superficial because there is no peace and security. You walk (from) one block to another and you feel unsafe. I have three daughters to worry about. What if they end up with people who do not treat them well? I cannot work because I am unqualified. Everywhere you have to go, you have to go by car, but not in Cambodia. . . . I want to breathe the air there, I want to drink the water there, I want to see my brother and sister there,” he said through an interpreter.


Until 1987, Cambodian refugees were able to make their way to the United States in relatively large numbers, unhindered by international

refugee policy. Families that had been separated by the horror of the war were reunited in San Diego and elsewhere and have made the United States their permanent home.

But staying in the United States now offers Chhim almost no hope of being reunited with a brother, a sister and several cousins, who live in “displaced-person” camps along the Cambodia-Thailand border, because fewer and fewer Cambodian refugees are coming to the United States.

Displaced persons are not considered refugees by the Thai government, and access to those camps by officials from resettlement countries is limited. In addition, the Thai government announced last month that Khao-I-Dang, the largest and most famous of the refugee camps, will be turned into a voluntary repatriation center as soon as the last of its refugees eligible for resettlement are processed.


Alan Boyd, a Bangkok-based journalist who attended the press conference announcing the move, said it means that no more Cambodian refugees will leave Thailand. “There will be special cases, but basically, there will not be any more resettlement,” said Boyd.

Chhim receives a continuous stream of letters from relatives, some of whom have languished in the border camps for as long as eight years. He cannot sponsor his brother and sister to come and live here because he does not have the money. It is not the first time he has had to confront the prospect of a shattered family.

Chhim lost his first wife and eldest son to the Khmer Rouge, who experts say executed or starved nearly 3 million Cambodians during a bloody reign before being ousted by the Vietnamese in 1978.

A former government social servant, Chhim was accused by the Khmer Rouge of being a traitor and was imprisoned for two months, then spent two years in a refugee camp.

In 1981, Chhim fled to what he hoped would be a better life in the United States with what was left of his family. It has not turned out that way.

Today, he is living on government assistance. He manages to support a 15-year-old daughter, who attends Roosevelt Junior High School in North Park, and an 18-year-old son, who attends Madison High School in Clairemont, with the help of two older daughters who work on an assembly line in a local electronics company to bring in extra income.

Culture at Risk

Chhim’s problems reflect those facing the Cambodian community in San Diego and elsewhere. Local social service officials say the breakdown of the family and other factors are weakening an already small Cambodian community in San Diego County, which they estimate at 6,000 to 7,000. With fewer Cambodians arriving and with the assimilation of newer generations, they say sustaining Cambodian culture is at risk.


Cultural differences have added to the adaptation problems of the Cambodian refugees. Many Cambodians do not understand the health-care system because they are used to “natural healers” at home, said Sokennedy Pen, a counselor at the Union of Pan-Asian Communities (UPAC), a multiservice agency that serves San Diego’s refugee population from Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand. And parents do not get involved with their children’s education because, in Cambodia, teachers have “absolute rule” and the right to physically discipline a student, he said.

Hul Nil, executive director of the Cambodian Assn. of America in Long Beach, said the grief of a family that already has adaptation problems and must also face separation from close relatives could affect the family’s mental health.

Social services for Cambodians in general are not expected to be discontinued with the drop-off in the numbers of Cambodian refugees. But, because funding of basic services for newly arrived refugees is granted based on need, and need is often determined by numbers, some of these basic service programs are at risk.

UPAC Director Beverly Yip said job training and “employment (placement) services . . . generally are targeted to numbers, and that kind of money is definitely going to be diminished.”

Numbers Dwindle

Fewer than 40 Cambodians came to San Diego last year, according to Bob Moser, assistant director for resettlement and immigration at Catholic Community Services. Although they made up 15% of all refugees arriving in San Diego between 1980 and 1984, they constitute less than 1% for 1987 and 1988, he said.

Since November, only one Cambodian family has arrived in San Diego that has sought help from UPAC, Pen said. Hou Bunna, a resistance fighter who lost a leg by stepping on a Khmer Rouge land mine, and his family of nine arrived in December and live on welfare in a small apartment in East San Diego. He is lucky to be alive, Pen said, but job prospects are grim because he does not speak English.

The drop-off, which began in 1987, is the result of changes in international refugee policy and the fewer Cambodians who qualify as refugees, U. S. refugee officials said.


“We do not have access to the Cambodians on the border. That is an agreement of the royal Thai government, the United Nations high commissioner for refugees and the international community, including the U.S.,” said Joe Coleman, director of domestic affairs for the U. S. Coordinator for Refugee Affairs.

“We and the other resettlement countries have just about finished processing those Cambodians in Khao-I-Dang that we believe would be eligible for admissions under the laws of the various countries. Therefore there are very few who are likely to be admissible . . . to this country,” Coleman said.

Figures from the Office of Refugee Resettlement show that the number of Cambodian refugees arriving in the United States peaked in 1981 at 27,100. From then until 1986, the annual intake varied from 10,100 to 19,900. But in 1987, only 1,900 Cambodian refugees were admitted, and in 1988 about 2,800 were admitted, roughly half of whom were resettled in California.

The 1988 figure is slightly higher than in 1987 because the United States agreed to reexamine a number of cases from the refugee camps after it became apparent that the Thai government would not allow any processing of people in the border camps, a spokeswoman from the Bureau of Refugee Programs said.

Frustrated by Policy

Some Cambodian community leaders do not understand the change in policy and argue that the United States could take a more active role in accepting Cambodian refugees. Others voice frustration at not being able to get their own government to release family members.

“Most of the people who have been educated were killed (by the Khmer Rouge) so those (who) arrive in the U.S. are uneducated,” said Yang Hay, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Khmer Humanitarian Organization. “They don’t even know how to approach their own congressmen. And we certainly don’t have enough power to push our government.”

“We are not united, we are disorganized,” Pen said. “With small numbers, we’re going to lose our identity, we’re going to lose our culture.”

Chhim is old enough to remember the Cambodian culture and is thought of as one of the few intellectuals who got out. He therefore is the community’s storyteller and is charged with writing songs and poems for the Cambodian New Year celebration in April.

But his worry that the newer generations will forget their culture is one of the reasons he wants to return to Cambodia, permanently. He will return with his second wife, Vann Naret, and his four children, if an international peacekeeping force can be set up to monitor a coalition government of the existing four political factions.

“I am very homesick, I am very lonely and I am very old. All my life I (have wanted) a good future for my children. I want them not to forget their Cambodian identity,” Chhim said. “I think of family members sacrificing their lives and dying for their country, but I feel like a traitor. If I die here, it means nothing.”