In the squalor of Orange County's poorest neighborhoods, an ancient and endangered people is battling cultural extinction.
They are Indochinese Muslims who call themselves the Cham. For more than 1,000 years, they ruled the kingdom of Champa in what is now southern Vietnam. Overrun by the Vietnamese, many fled to Cambodia, where they clung to their distinctive language, culture and faith. After the communist takeover in 1975, the Cham and other minorities were singled out for persecution by the Khmer Rouge.
Today, about 132 refugee families have settled in Orange County, the largest Cham enclave in the United States.
They live tightly clustered around mosques in Santa Ana and Fullerton, praying to Mecca five times a day and teaching their daughters to cover their heads chastely. Cham elders boast that in 10 years in the United States, they have not lost a single child to crime, gangs, drugs--or assimilation. Most marriages are still arranged, with young people strongly encouraged to marry other Cham and forbidden to marry non-Muslims.
"Our community is better because our people follow strict Islamic rules," said Dollard Phar, an elder in the Santa Ana mosque. "No adultery, no robbery, no drugs, no gangs, no drunks."
Try as they may to hold on, the Cham see some of their customs slipping away. Daily life in modern and individualistic Orange County challenges every aspect of traditional Cham culture.
Former peasants, fishermen and blacksmiths work in automated factories, but some dutifully pray inside their parked cars during lunch breaks. Their children circumnavigate the permissive world of Southern California schools and malls, then come home to study the Koran.
This clash between cultures creates new and baffling choices. Among the starkest is whether this closely intermarried community should change its marriage customs in light of a newly discovered genetic disease that is killing some of its children.
One Santa Ana couple, who are first cousins, have lost five of their seven children. They are expecting an eighth child. So far, they have shunned Western medical intervention, including prenatal tests that would detect the disease.
"We know science does a lot of things that are perfect," explained Phar. "But we let things go with God."
Since the 19th Century, the few scholars who have noticed the Cham have mainly portrayed them as a vanquished and vanishing race.
Scholars estimate their number has dwindled to less than 350,000, including roughly 3,000 to 5,000 refugees who have settled in the United States. Most fled Vietnam and Cambodia by land and wound up in Thai refugee camps. The largest U.S. Cham enclaves are in Orange County, Seattle and Portland, Ore., but smaller communities have formed in San Francisco, Denver and Philadelphia. Some have settled in Australia and France.
The Cham have displayed a tenacious vitality. Refugee after refugee said the assaults of history have only strengthened the determination to preserve ethnic and religious identity. Some believe the Cham have become more devout in the United States.
"We come here and we are hungry for religion again," said Ahmath El, 43, who in 1979 founded the Cambodian Cham settlement on Minnie Street in Santa Ana. "We rebuild. Now we are strong enough to protect our children. Maybe one or two we (will) lose, but 98% we keep."
It is not easy. The Cham share down-at-the-heel neighborhoods with Asian and Latino immigrants--and with gang members, prostitutes, cocaine dealers and addicts.
On West Street in Fullerton, where most of the Cham from Vietnam live, one father said he or his wife walk their 10-year-old son to and from school each day, past a man palming little drug bags and past the gang graffiti near the mosque. Fullerton police said they recently began foot patrols in response to a spate of gang-inspired gunfire.
In Santa Ana, where the Cham from Cambodia are clustered, young Cambodian gang members took to hanging out in front of the mosque sipping beer, to the horror of the abstemious Cham. Not wishing to involve the police, the elders finally embarrassed the youths into leaving by inviting them inside to join the evening prayers.
At home, Cham children are taught to shun racy or violent television programs, and at school, Muslim teacher aides warn them when the luncheon menu includes pork. Sometimes it is impossible to pray five times during a busy school day. And Cham girls have no choice but to wear shorts in gym classes. "Like underwear!" complained one Cham father.
Dating is forbidden. One Cham teen-ager confessed to having a Korean-American girlfriend, but said he did not dare tell his parents. Some girls leave home in the morning with their heads covered, but shed veils and add lipstick on the way to school.
"Maybe they feel ashamed because they are in American society," said Halim Ahmed, who instructs Cham children in Koranic studies after school. "They go to school, they get laughed at."
Islam came gradually to Champa. Scholars believe the religion was introduced by Arab traders or spread through Muslim Malaysia between the 11th and 14th Centuries, but the majority of Cham probably did not convert until the 17th Century. Some non-Muslim Cham still live in the highlands of Vietnam, but most in Cambodia are Sunni Muslims.
Under the Khmer Rouge, Islam was banned. Refugees recount tales of soldiers turning mosques into pig farms, forcing Cham women to cut their hair short in the Cambodian style, forbidding them to speak the Cham language and executing those who refused to eat pork.
"The Pol Pot regime didn't want a Cham culture to survive," said Ben Kiernan, assistant professor of history at Yale University. Kiernan estimates that 90,000 of the 250,000 Cambodian Cham were victims of genocide between 1975 and 1979.
Ahmath El said his village in Kompong Chhnang province was leveled by U.S. bombing in 1973. After 1975, the Khmer Rouge sent his family to labor in a remote area. El said his family was spared because they were skilled blacksmiths who were needed to forge plows, axes and machetes used to reclaim the jungle. From time to time, El said, they were also required to cover the mass graves of hundreds of people who were brought to the jungle settlement and executed.
"They don't trust us. . . . They consider they can kill us any time--like fish in a tank," El said. "If they need us, they just save us for (as long as) they need."
El estimated that about a third of his fellow villagers died and the rest were scattered. In 1979, during the chaos created by the invading Vietnamese army, Ahmath ran west toward Thailand--just as his great-grandfather had fled Vietnamese-occupied Champa more than a century before.
Just as the Nazi Holocaust spurred Jewish attempts to establish Israel, El wants to found a Cham nation on the ruins of Vijaya, the Cham capital near the modern city of Qui-nhon, conquered by the Vietnamese in 1471.
"We lost Champa and we lost Cambodia . . .," El explained. "We want independent land. Because when I look at the map of the world it's so sad--it's all Vietnamese. The Laotians, they have very small population and they have their own land. Why not us?"
At dusk, the Muslim call to prayer rings out from a shabby Santa Ana condominium that has been converted to a mosque. Cham men file in dressed in sarongs, leaving their shoes at the door. Little boys in Beach Boy-style neon T-shirts stand behind their fathers, copying each gesture of prayer.
On the street, Cham women favor long dresses. At the mosque, they don long, white robes and veils that shroud all but their faces. Men and women both face Mecca but pray in separate rooms.
"The most important thing is that women do not show their shape, so a man cannot predict their beauty," explained Islamic teacher Ahmed.
The evening breeze brings news of the neighborhood through the mosque's open doors: the smell of drying fish and barbecue smoke, the din of dozens of children romping on the small lawn between apartment buildings.
When prayers are over, the men sit, talking. They offer a visitor strong jasmine tea.
For the Cham, peaceful evenings at the mosque are a refuge from the hustle-bustle of their new country.
"In America, time is expensive. In America, time is money. But we have lots of time," said Ghazaly Halim. "Especially when we come to the mosque, we have more time than anything else."
The elders say there is not time to teach children about their Cham heritage. "Even in this community here, we don't teach Cham culture at all," added Phar. "Our goal in this community is to teach Islam. Then, if we have time, we teach other things."
Prayers are conducted in Arabic, and Ahmed, a Vietnamese Cham schooled in Saudi Arabia, tries to teach Cham children enough Arabic to read the Koran. At home, Cham families encourage their children to speak their native language, which is related to Malay. Cham was once written in Sanskrit, but that has been forgotten. Traditional Cham customs, folk tales and spicy cuisine, all influenced by Indian and Malaysian culture, are slowly being lost.
"The Cham culture is disappearing," Ahmed said sadly.
In a small, darkened room on the other side of the mosque, the women sit rolling prayer beads and chatting. Those in their 40s look decades older. Many tell horrific stories of life under the Khmer Rouge.
"They took all the Korans and the Islamic books and sometimes the soldiers took the paper from the Koran to roll cigarettes," said Miriam Ya, 46. "We felt sad and we felt upset and we felt angry. But we didn't want them to know. If they knew they would kill us."
The women brighten when asked about their children. One shy woman let her veil drop from her face and gave a smile full of gold and gaps. "My son is at Pomona College, studying engineering," she said.
Learning English and landing good jobs remain major struggles for many Cham families, as with their refugee neighbors. Ten years after the first Cham arrived, elders say that 90% of the families have at least one person working, and two-thirds are no longer dependent on welfare. Still, many Cham families are just scraping by on a single worker's minimum wage.
One of the community's few entrepreneurs is 33-year-old Samey Oun. Every morning, he buys Asian vegetables and other foods in Los Angeles, speeds past Orange County's strip malls, theme parks and gleaming bank buildings, then slowly circles through refugee neighborhoods to peddle his wares. His white panel truck, marked "Cham Produce," is packed with fresh oyster mushrooms and Fuji squash, bananas, Asian cucumbers and long beans, persimmons and papayas.
Like most Cham, Oun is a polyglot. His clientele demands it.
"I speak English, French, Lao, Thai, a little bit of Mexican, Chinese, Vietnamese," said Oun, whose customers call him "the Cham man." "I speak Cambodian too. Everybody come!"
A native of Phnom Penh, Oun became a soldier at 16 and had his Adam's apple tattooed "for luck." He also has a failing memory, the legacy of being bludgeoned with an M-16 during interrogation by a Khmer Rouge soldier. "Now when I got to get orders, I have to write everything down."
Oun says he has been lucky in the complete stranger his parents picked to be his bride. The couple has three children.
"I just see her and after that, I told my parents OK," Oun said. Though his wife was not a relative, Oun said, "Most Cham, they get married with a cousin, second cousin, like that."
Many traditional cultures favor such marriages to preserve family wealth and prevent ethnic extinction, said Khamchong Luangpraseut, a Laotian refugee and scholar of Southeast Asian culture.
Such groups "tend to intermarry as a matter of preservation--just like royalty," Luangpraseut said. "There are so few of them left."
Dr. Kenneth W. Dumars had never heard of Champa until two Cham children under his care died of genetic disease.
"I was concerned that I might be viewed as a harbinger of death," said Dumars, a medical geneticist in the UC Irvine department of pediatrics. He went to the Cham temple to meet with the elders and discuss the problem.
"Ultimately, we got around to the topic of consanguinity," a technical term for inbreeding by cousins or closer relatives, Dumars said. "They wanted to continue that in order to preserve their culture. And all I wanted them to hear was that there were certain risks associated with that."
Consanguinity increases the chances that recessive mutant genes will combine to produce abnormal offspring. But, Dumars explained, it can also perpetuate desirable traits and family talents.
Because the Cham are such a tiny minority, little is known about their medical problems. Dumars has found that they suffer from thalassemia, a group of inherited blood diseases that interfere with the synthesis of hemoglobin.
Thalassemias are mostly found in Mediterranean and Southeast Asian peoples. Most who have the defective genes are healthy "silent carriers," but, depending on how many defective genes a person receives from each parent, symptoms can range from mild to severe anemia, stillbirth or childhood death. Transfusions can prolong the lives of thalassemia victims past the teen-age years, but the cost can exceed $10,000 per month, Dumars said.
About 3% to 5% of Southeast Asian and Mediterranean peoples carry the genes for thalassemia, Dumars said, while 5.4% of healthy Cham adults whose blood he tested were carriers for one of two types of the disorder. Statistically, that means roughly four Cham children per 1,000 would be affected.
"That's about twice as common as cystic fibrosis," said Dumars. "And it's much more common than Tay-Sachs," a genetic disease that primarily affects Jewish children. However, the Cham do not seem to suffer from many diseases that affect other ethnic groups, Dumars said.
In some cases, couples at risk of having children with thalassemia can be detected by blood tests before conception. Prenatal screening can indicate whether a fetus is affected.
So far, no Cham families have accepted prenatal testing. Elders said abortion is forbidden under Islamic law. Perhaps equally important, Western medical interventions designed to cheat fate clash with the Cham's belief that one should submit to God's will.
"They're less likely to scrap with nature," said Dumars. "They accept what comes along. We don't. Who's to say which is better?"
One of the Cham babies Dumars treated died of thalassemia. Another newborn boy succumbed to what Dumars believes was a neurodegenerative genetic disease. The disorder was never identified because, in keeping with their culture, the baby's parents refused an autopsy, Dumars said.
The couple, El Sa, 43, and Aysas San, 40--who are first cousins--said three other newborns died, two in Cambodia and one in the United States. A fifth child, a daughter then 8, collapsed and died as they fled through the jungle to Thailand.
The couple also have two healthy children, a 14-year-old boy whose basketball posters cover the walls of the family apartment, and an 8-year-old girl who recently delighted her parents with an award for being the best speller in her third-grade class.
Both parents work making Oakley sunglasses in Irvine. During breaks, Sa said, he goes to the parking lot to perform his prayers in his car. They pray that the child they are expecting in April will be healthy.
"I hope it's a good one," Aysas said quietly. "If he's not healthy, that's OK. . . . That's just the way God does it."
Some young Cham see things differently.
Basari Mohamath, 22, a student leader in the Cham community in Seattle, which is about the same size as the one in Orange County, said he was asked to marry a first cousin and refused. "I guess I just have the American way in my head. I just don't feel it's right, plus I am aware of the increasing chance of genetic disease."
Mohamath, a structural engineering student at the University of Washington, said he believes it is his duty to marry another Cham and to work to preserve the culture. Among other things, Mohamath said, young people have helped organize a Cham conference at UC Berkeley, are collecting scarce materials about Cham history, and are trying to develop a Roman letter system for writing Cham to replace Sanskrit.
Without such a system, Mohamath said, language, history and culture can only be passed along to the next generation orally. "And the likelihood of that is decreasing, because the kids are being assimilated into American culture. If we don't pass it on, then our culture will become extinct."
From the 3rd Century until the 15th Century, the Cham people ruled a kingdom called Champa in what is now southern Vietnam. Unlike the Vietnamese, the Cham language is related to Malay, and the culture, art and religion were influenced by India until about the 15th Century, when most Cham converted to Islam. Ruins of ancient Cham temples and sculptures still dot coastal Vietnam. In 1471, the Vietnamese invaded the Cham capital of Vijaya, and many Cham fled to Cambodia. Following the communist takeovers in Vietnam and Cambodia in 1975, Cham from both countries joined the flow of refugees who ultimately settled in the United States.
Source: Yale University assistant professor Ben Kiernan, historian Stanley Karnow