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Displaced: The Cambodian Diaspora

Pete Pin | United States

Shorty, 28, Killing Fields tattoo, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Apr. 2011

In the early to mid-1980's, over 150,000 Cambodians resettled in America from refugee camps along the Thai-Cambodian border. They were the survivors of one of most radical upheavals in the twentieth century which nearly eliminated the history and culture of an entire nation. As a son of the Killing Fields born in 1982 in the refugee camp to which my family had fled following the Cambodian genocide, I have struggled for most of my life to understand the legacy of my people. Over the last year, I engaged in a series of conversations with Cambodian-Americans about our history and the complexity of their experience while photographing community members in Philadelphia, Pa.; Lowell, Mass. and the Bronx, N.Y.


In the early to mid-1980's, over 150,000 Cambodians resettled in
America from refugee camps along the Thai-Cambodian border. They were the survivors of one of most radical social, economic and political upheavals in the twentieth century which nearly eliminated the history and culture of an entire nation. Given the nature of the unprecedented social, political, and economic upheaval carried out by the Khmer Rouge - the entire backbone of society, professionals, artists, musicians, and monks, were systematically executed - the survivors were largely uneducated and illiterate. As a result, never in the history of refugee resettlement did a population suffer such extensive and prolonged trauma and were in addition so ill-equipped to resettle successfully due to their lack of skills and resources. To compound
their suffering, life in the inner-city of America, where many were
resettled, was at times violent and isolating.

As a son of the Killing Fields born in 1982 in the refugee camp to
which my family had fled following the Cambodian genocide, I have struggled for most of my life to understand the legacy of my people. Over the last year, I engaged in a series of conversations with Cambodian-Americans about our history and the complexity of their experience while photographing community members in Philadelphia, Pa.; Lowell, Mass. and the Bronx, N.Y.

After surviving the Killing Fields, my family, along with hundreds of
thousands of survivors, risked their lives trekking through the
Khmer-Rouge-controlled jungle to reach a refugee camp in Thailand. There, my mother had what she believes to be a prophetic dream. In a field, an entire city’s worth of women were clawing with their bare hands in bloodstained dirt searching for an elusive diamond. To the disbelief of everyone in the dream, she serendipitously stumbled upon it wrapped in a blanket of dirt. The following day she discovered she was pregnant with me. The significance of this didn’t dawn on me until I started photographing this project. It was a vision of hope and renewal, that we as Cambodians are endowed with an incredible resilience and strength in human spirit. I have seen this in the faces
of Cambodians I have photographed and have been incredibly humbled. In the words of my mother, it is a miracle to simply exist.

The Cambodian people are among the most heavily traumatized people in modern memory. They are the human aftermath of a cultural, political, and economic revolution by the Khmer Rouge that killed an estimated two million, nearly a third of the entire population, within a span of four years from 1975-1979. The entire backbone of society—educated professionals, artists, musicians and monks—were systematically executed in a brutal attempt to transform the entirety of Cambodian society to a classless rural collective of peasants. That tragedy casts a long shadow on the lives of Cambodians. It bleeds generationally, manifesting itself subtly within my own family in ways that I am only starting to fully comprehend as an adult. It is ingrained in the sorrow of my grandmother’s eyes; it is sown in the furrows of my parents’ faces.

As a result of the unique demographic circumstances of the genocide, there has been a paucity of reflection within the Cambodian community. Many second-generation Cambodians I have interviewed learned about the Killing Fields through secondary sources, from the Internet and documentary films. Such conversations were non-existent at home. Exacerbating the silence is an inter-generational language barrier; most young Cambodian Americans cannot speak Khmer, the Cambodian
language, while their parents and grandparents are incapable of
speaking English. As a result, we are the literal manifestation of Pol Pot’s attempt to erase Cambodia’s history and culture. However, in spite of this void, there exists a growing movement of young and empowered Cambodians—academics, artists, musicians, and activists—who are trying to bridge this generational chasm.

Magnum Foundation Emergency Fund Project Page:
http://bit.ly/rEXhbS

Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma
http://hprt-cambridge.org/
 

email: petepin@gmail.com

phone: 562-243-1397

website: www.petepin.com

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