‘A generational healing experience’: Exhibit documents the struggles of Cambodian families fleeing the Khmer Rouge who found refuge and a new community in Amherst

Yanna Ok, a first-generation Cambodian American whose family came to Amherst in the 1980s, is a key organizer of a new exhibit in town, “Cambodians in Amherst,” at the Amherst History Museum.

Yanna Ok, a first-generation Cambodian American whose family came to Amherst in the 1980s, is a key organizer of a new exhibit in town, “Cambodians in Amherst,” at the Amherst History Museum. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

In some of the displays in “Cambodians in Amherst,” new residents have recalled their experiences escaping from the Khmer Rouge and surviving difficult conditions in refugee camps.

In some of the displays in “Cambodians in Amherst,” new residents have recalled their experiences escaping from the Khmer Rouge and surviving difficult conditions in refugee camps. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

This model of the Khao-i-Dang refugee camp in Thailand was constructed in the 1990s by Cambodian students at the Fort River School and their teacher, Sokhen Mao. It’s now part of “Cambodians in Amherst” at the Amherst History Museum.

This model of the Khao-i-Dang refugee camp in Thailand was constructed in the 1990s by Cambodian students at the Fort River School and their teacher, Sokhen Mao. It’s now part of “Cambodians in Amherst” at the Amherst History Museum. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

 Mick O'Connor, project manager of “Cambodians in Amherst,” says the exhibit includes displays examining traditional Cambodian culture as well as materials reflecting the journey of Cambodians to Amherst and the U.S.

Mick O'Connor, project manager of “Cambodians in Amherst,” says the exhibit includes displays examining traditional Cambodian culture as well as materials reflecting the journey of Cambodians to Amherst and the U.S. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Joan Snowdon, a former ESL teacher in Amherst schools, is a key researcher and organizer for “Cambodians in Amherst,” says the exhibit could not have been realized without vital contributions from the local Cambodian community.

Joan Snowdon, a former ESL teacher in Amherst schools, is a key researcher and organizer for “Cambodians in Amherst,” says the exhibit could not have been realized without vital contributions from the local Cambodian community. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Yanna Ok, a first generation Cambodian American whose family came to Amherst in the 1980s, says she learned things about her family she’d never known in helping put together “Cambodians in Amherst.”

Yanna Ok, a first generation Cambodian American whose family came to Amherst in the 1980s, says she learned things about her family she’d never known in helping put together “Cambodians in Amherst.” STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Name tags with photo IDs, which Cambodian refugees had to wear during their journey from refugee camps to the U.S., are part of the new exhibit “Cambodians in Amherst” at the Amherst History Museum.

Name tags with photo IDs, which Cambodian refugees had to wear during their journey from refugee camps to the U.S., are part of the new exhibit “Cambodians in Amherst” at the Amherst History Museum. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

This model of the Khao-i-Dang refugee camp in Thailand was constructed in the 1990s by Cambodian students at the Fort River School and their teacher, Sokhen Mao. It’s now part of “Cambodians in Amherst” at the Amherst History Museum.

This model of the Khao-i-Dang refugee camp in Thailand was constructed in the 1990s by Cambodian students at the Fort River School and their teacher, Sokhen Mao. It’s now part of “Cambodians in Amherst” at the Amherst History Museum. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

By STEVE PFARRER

Staff Writer

Published: 05-16-2024 3:52 PM

Modified: 05-17-2024 3:02 PM


Not long after 20 years of war finally ended in Vietnam in 1975, another wave of horrendous violence erupted just to the west.

The Khmer Rouge, the Communist party of Cambodia, seized control of the country and began a brutal “reeducation” campaign that, in less than four years, led to the deaths of an estimated 1.5 million to 2 million Cambodians.

Hundreds of thousands of other Cambodians fled to neighboring countries such as Thailand. By the early 1980s, many of them were being resettled in the U.S., including in Amherst.

To tell that story, the Amherst Historical Society, working with a number of supporters, including members of the town’s Cambodian community, has opened a new exhibit that traces the journey of survivors of genocide to a very different country and culture — and how succeeding generations of Cambodians built a new life in western Massachusetts.

“Cambodians in Amherst: A History of the Khmer Community” features numerous photos, text displays, historical objects, videos, and more, including oral history interviews with some of the older Cambodians who first came to the Valley after their lives were turned upside down in their native land.

“I feel like it’s almost a generational healing experience,” said Yanna Ok, a first-generation Cambodian-American whose parents met in a refugee camp in Thailand and came to Amherst in 1985.

“Most Cambodians are humble and quiet and don’t really talk about their past or the trauma they experienced,” said Ok, one of the principal organizers of the exhibit. “I discovered so much about my own family’s roots through this project, things I’d never known … it’s a way of getting to some of those difficult stories.”

Her father, Yon Seang, took up painting when he was in the Thai refuge camp and continued with his art in Amherst. Ok’s mother, Sokhom Ok, followed to Amherst a few months after Yon Seang arrived, and they attended Amherst Regional High School and later married; their daughter was born in May 1992.

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Her uncle, Kork Ok, who also came to Amherst, wrote poetry — but, like her father’s paintings, Yanna Ok only learned about this years later when she came across some Gazette articles about their work.

“My family doesn’t always speak of their accomplishments, so you can imagine they also don’t always speak of what happened to them during the Khmer Rouge,” she wrote in a follow-up email. “This project/exhibit helped me discover so much about them and made them brave enough to speak to me.”

Ok, today the director of media and digital content at Amherst Media, also enlisted some Cambodian American high school students in town — she’s a graduate of ARHS herself — such as Pavan Seiha, to interview older members of the community about their experiences.

Seiha, who received training at Amherst Media for the assignment, says he had a good experience doing that; he also spoke to people in Amherst who were part of the town’s initial effort to set up a support network for the new residents.

One of those interviewees was Joan Snowdon, a former English as a Second Language teacher in the school district and another key organizer of the exhibit.

Snowdon, at the exhibit, recalled how Amherst schools had to develop a Khmer ESL program because so many Cambodians — perhaps 500 people eventually — had been resettled in town.

That language instruction remained in place until 2003 as a “heritage program,” Snowdon said, even as the children of the first generation of Cambodian immigrants became fluent in English and didn’t need ESL services: “It was important that they still had access to this part of their past.”

‘I was always scared’

The exhibit, at the Amherst History Museum, next to the Jones Library, begins with materials that touch on that heritage, like a display of foodstuffs central to Cambodian cuisine; they’ve been donated to the exhibit by Cambodian families.

“We wanted to show examples of the kinds of things refugees tried to reestablish once they were settled,” said Mick O’Connor, the exhibit project manager. “One of the key aspects of genocide education is to bring awareness of what was lost.”

That part of the exhibit also includes materials that document the long journeys Cambodian refugees had to make, such as the name tags/photo IDs people wore when moving from Thailand to international transit centers and then the U.S.

On view as well is a model of a Thai refugee camp that Cambodian students at Fort River Elementary School built back in the early 1990s to address some of their past. Their teacher, Sokhen Mao, had himself been a refugee and eventually came to Amherst, where he graduated from ARHS and UMass Amherst. (Mao has also helped organize the exhibit.)

That model is accompanied by photos and text from refugees who recorded their experiences in the camps, such as Vibol Pen, who was a student at Fort River in 1992.

Recalling his time as a refugee in Thailand, he wrote that robbers “came to the camp every night. I was always scared even when I had my parents with me.” Drawings he made also depict acts of violence in the camps.

But another part of the exhibit is given over to how Cambodians found their footing in Amherst and America — in many different ways.

For example, using mostly volunteer labor and extensive fundraising, Cambodian immigrants built a Buddhist temple in Leverett, just down the hill from the New England Peace Pagoda, that became an important hub for community events and Buddhist ceremonies, as well as a home for Buddhist monks and nuns (and for Cambodian elders with no immediate family).

Other new residents formed the Khmer Growers of Western Mass in the mid-1990s, which began cultivating land in the Wentworth Farm Conservation Area, growing traditional Cambodian and other Southeast Asian crops and selling some to area food markets.

Meanwhile, the Jones Library started an ESL program for Cambodian community members that was expanded to include a U.S. citizenship program — a model for an expanded program at the Jones that has grown over the years to offer classes to immigrants from many different countries.

Snowdon says the program coordinator, Lynne Weintraub, got her start in ESL as a graduate student at UMass in the 1980s when she began volunteer tutoring of Cambodians in town.

“Lynne was one of those key people in the early days as the town built a support network [for Cambodian immigrants] pretty much from the ground up,” said Snowdon.

O’Connor notes that a number of organizations, such as Mass Humanities, UMass, and the Amherst Cultural Council, have helped sponsor and provide other support for the exhibit. “It feels like a real community effort,” he said.

And he and Gigi Barnhill, of the Amherst Historical Society, say “Cambodians in America” represents an important new direction for the society: focusing on more recent history in town, with projects that better reflect the town’s diversity and which ideally will appeal to a more multicultural audience.

For her part, Yanna Ok notes that not all the Cambodian immigrants in Amherst made a smooth transition to America, with some older ones struggling to learn English, for example. Others remained haunted by the horrors of the Khmer Rouge era.

“I really hope this exhibit can be a first step for our whole community to look back at our experiences and stories and find new ways to talk about them,” she said.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.