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Intergenerational Effects of Genocidal Disaster among Cambodian Youth
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Intergenerational Effects of Genocidal Disaster among Cambodian Youth

By Margaret M. Chung, MSW
(December 2000)

For two years in Lowell, MA, I worked with Cambodian youth through a faith-based organization that had won national recognition for its work with at-risk youth. I also served as a legal advocate for a battered women's shelter and participated in several government task forces including the Southeast Asian Families Against Domestic Violence. I've learned that Cambodians are a warm and generous people with a beautiful culture that unfortunately had to undergo the horrors of genocide and are dealing with the after-effects.

Background of Lowell, MA

The largest concentration of Cambodians in the US is found in the city of Lowell. Southeast Asians also make up 40% of the Lowell school system. This is remarkable considering that over 50% of its entire population is under the age of 21.

Cambodian adult experience

Between the years of 1975-1979, approximately two million of Cambodia's population of seven million died under the communist Pol Pot regime, also known as the Khmer Rouge. Hundreds of thousands were executed through drastic measures: pregnant women were cut open; plastic bags were tied over heads suffocating victims to death; and men, women and children were shot or buried alive. Others died of starvation and disease during forced urban evacuation and in brutal labor camps, where husbands, wives, and children were separated. The term 'autogenocide' was coined to characterize the atrocities perpetrated by fellow Cambodians in one of the most violent blood baths in the twentieth century.

Most Cambodians in Lowell do not want to talk about their experiences and have lost large percentages of family members to this regime. But many continue to relive the terror, exhibiting characteristic post-traumatic symptoms including intrusive recollection, hyper arousal, and traumatic amnesia.

Intergenerational effects on Cambodian youth

The trauma experienced by the adults continues to effect them and their children in Lowell. Child abuse, neglect, and PINS petitions are all unfortunately prevalent in this community. DSS, the MA equivalent to ACS, had to create a special unit in Lowell, consisting of over ten Cambodian caseworkers, to deal with the large influx of cases among the Cambodians. Many youth have been neglected and there are several accounts of physical or sexual abuse. One mother held a rifle to her daughter with the imperative: 'Leave or die'. Possibly related to the fact that many parents suffer from symptoms of PTSD, several children also need counseling and psychiatric medication. I know of several abused adolescent youth that have heavily tattooed themselves, pierced body parts and practiced self-mutilation.

I'll never forget my initial introduction to Lowell when I was told of a family murder. In 1995, a former Khmer Rouge soldier went to his girlfriend's house and brutally murdered three of her four children. One daughter survived after her brother jumped in front of her and took 14 bullets.

Youth violence among Cambodians is expressed in the opening poem written by a 15-year-old. In 1996, approximately 85% of the juvenile murders in the city of Lowell were perpetrated by Southeast Asian youth. Violence in school among Cambodians has led to shootings, stabbing with scissors, and knifings. There was also one girl who had her beautiful long hair burned off while trapped in a tunnel at school, and another who cut her boyfriend up with razors after he cheated on her.

Both old and young Cambodians often work in sweatshops for low pay. The adults work long, hard hours and leave their kids alone. The older children care for their younger siblings but several rebel and join gangs.

Awareness of this often-overlooked population is necessary in dealing with the problems of many of our urban communities. More work should be done in recognizing the needs of this very special and traumatized Asian population whose impact continues to effect the next generation.

Advice for social workers dealing with the Cambodian population

  • Recognize that this community has witnessed incredible dimensions of human suffering and violence when dealing with them.
  • Acknowledge that there is often great reluctance to talk about their experience.
  • Take into consideration their hesitancy and intense fear of those in authority.
  • Take into account that many Cambodians do not know how to read Khmer. The best way to effectively reach this community is through native translators.
  • Recognize the role of monks and different religious practices in their community.
  • Understand the pressure placed on girls to be pure and good for they carry their family's honor because Cambodians are a matriarchal society.
  • Home visit etiquette- Don't touch heads because they are considered sacred, take your shoes off when entering their homes, and never refuse food that is offered.
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