Connecting with a new generation: Amherst program links students of Cambodian descent to their roots

  • Carlos Ramirez and Jazmyn Weaver work on their names in Khmer during the Cambodian Affinity Group held at Crocker Farm after school program. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Katherine Son leads a group of students in the Cambodian Affinity Group held at Crocker Farm after school program, in a history game about Cambodia. Front left is Jazmyn Weaver and Jose Ramirez. Back left, Pavan Seiha, Nico Selman, and Christopher Camara. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jessi Noeum (middle) reacts to getting a question right during a game about the history of Cambodia the Cambodian Affinity Group held at Crocker Farm after school program. To his left is , Pavan Seiha and right is Jose Ramirez. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Front left in stripes, Carlos Ramirez, Pavan Seiha, Jessie Noeum, Jose Ramirez and Shane Mang during a history game about Cambodia during the Cambodian Affinity Group held at Crocker Farm after school program. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jessie Noeum works on coloring in his name written in Khmer during the Cambodian Affinity Group held at Crocker Farm after school program. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Seiha Krouch, a teacher in the Cambodian Affinity Group at Crocker Farm, talks to students about his time in Cambodia before he and his family fled the Khmer Rouge. From left, the students are Jessie Noeum, Carlos Ramirez and Nico Selman. At right is Thyda Ty, Krouch’s wife and teaching partner. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 1/22/2020 8:38:37 AM

When he was little, Shane Mang, the son of Cambodian immigrants, spoke some Khmer, the Cambodian language, around his home.

Now a sixth grader at Crocker Farm School, Shane is reminded of many basic words in that language while attending an after-school program that also offers an understanding of Cambodia’s history and culture.

“It’s fun and I really like it,” Shane said of being part of the weekly Cambodian Affinity Group.

Led by Seiha Krouch and his wife, Thyda Ty, the program continues the Amherst public schools’ longstanding efforts to make sure those of Cambodian descent, as well as other interested students, can get some knowledge of the Southeast Asian country.

The district’s history with refugees from then war-torn Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge began in 1982, with people continuing to arrive from refugee camps in Thailand into the mid-1990s.

Krouch, a teenager at the time of his arrival in Amherst in 1984, is now among the elders who provide guidance to a second generation of Cambodian-Americans settled in the region.

On a recent Thursday afternoon, the 90-minute program began with playing a pick-up game of basketball in the gym before the children headed to a classroom to discuss their recent viewing of a portion of “First They Killed My Father.” That film, directed by actress Angelina Jolie, is based on the autobiography of Luong Ung, who recounted her experience with the Khmer Rouge’s killing fields.

Krouch used the film as a way to talk to the kids about what happened to his family.

“I told them this was exactly what I went through,” Krouch said, noting that he has been reluctant to talk with his son about this past, which included losing both his father and a sister.

Katherine Son, a paraprofessional in the school system, has been assisting with the program by creating Powerpoint games, including one in which the students compete as teams to answer questions about the movie or other topics related to Cambodia.

For the 60 or so children of Cambodian descent throughout Amherst’s three elementary schools, middle school and high school, the after-school groups, which also meet at Fort River School, can be crucial.

“This new generation is all American, so the after-school program is to help them adjust,” Krouch said. “Parents want them to learn about language and culture.”

Though the group took a field trip to Lowell two years ago to attend a play focused on the generational gaps between teenagers of Cambodian descent and their parents. Krouch said there are not enough books or other educational materials yet available. That means Krouch, Ty and Son become resources to the children through conversation. “Anything they want to talk about in their lives,” Krouch said.

For example Son, who grew up in Springfield as the daughter of immigrants, said she can talk to the children about how, like many of them, she doesn’t speak or write Khmer, despite her father’s constant reminding her that she is Cambodian.

As a child of mixed heritage, with one parent from Cambodia, fifth grader Jazmyn Weaver, said she hears Khmer spoken at home, but wants to improve her skills.

“This program is about learning the history behind Cambodia, the language and how to write and understand the language,” Jazmyn said.

Jessie Noeum, a fourth grader, has been to Cambodia twice with his parents, where he visited cousins for a wedding and a birthday. “I went to a hotel; I went to parties,” Jessie said.

While getting a taste of the country, including a shopping mall, the mild weather and hearing Khmer spoken, he said his cousins often conversed with him only in English.

Marta Guevara, director of student and family engagement for the Amherst Regional Public Schools Family Center, said the Cambodian Affinity Group is a key bridge between the American culture in which the children of Cambodian immigrants are growing up, and the traditions that they otherwise would only learn from their parents and grandparents.

“The fabulous thing is Seiha has the living history,” Guevara said.

Guevara said that when Krouch arrived the district had already created a transitional bilingual education program at Fort River that was one of the first of its kind in the nation, and also provided ways for this first generation to counter the trauma they experiences.

Krouch said he had to adjust to American food and to learn the English alphabet. “It was a culture shock,” Krouch said. After graduating Amherst Regional, he went to the University of Massachusetts and then returned to the district in the early 1990s as a Title I instructor and bilingual teacher.

Dwayne Chamble, a district coordinator for programs that occur outside of school hours, said the after-school program is funded by the family center, including snacks for the participants, because parents and guardians have asked that this be available for their children.

Chamble added that there is hope children of all backgrounds can learn about the shared struggles and shared hardships, and the generational hurt and trauma, that Cambodian families experienced. “He’s here to be able to heal some of that,” Chamble said of Krouch.

Efforts to remind the Amherst community of this history continue, as well, with a mural in a hallway at the Amherst Regional High School created in 2018.

In addition, an oral history of Southeast Asian immigrants is underway that will be held at an archive at UMass, while the Amherst Historical Society is gathering information and objects related to this immigrant experience. The Fort River Khmer bilingual materials and documents have been donated to special collections at the Jones Library.

A celebration of the Cambodian new year, which began in the 1980s, will also continue this spring in partnership with the Cambodian temple in Leverett.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at
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