chicago – When Dary Mien talks about her family’s lives under the Khmer Rouge, she begins with the word “fortunately.”
“Fortunately, I only lost one sister,” she said.
Dary Mien already knows it’s an odd combination of words, but—like much else—it’s something she just lives with.
“I don’t look sad enough to some people,” she said. “But when I walk through Phnom Penh now, I see rice fields blown up and filled with naked and dead bodies.”
In that way, Dary Mien is still better off than many of her fellow Cambodian-Americans.
“At this point, most of them have not confronted the fact that they lost loved ones,” she said.
Dary Mien is one among many who hope to change that. The fund-raising campaign coordinator for the Cambodian Association of Illinois, Dary Mien is charged with raising money to help her organization take their cramped quarters on Chicago’s northwest side and turn it into a place for Cambodian immigrants in the US state of Illinois and beyond to come to terms with their grief.
If successful, the $1.8 million project would allow the association to remodel the two-story storefront-style building into a three-story Khmer-style community center, complete with classrooms, libraries, a dance hall and a frosted-glass monument to those left behind in the killing fields.
The memorial would be the first of its kind in the US.
Even association leaders admit Chicago seems an unlikely place for such a monument. There are at most 6,000 Cambodian-Americans living in Illinois, most of them scattered throughout Chicago and its sprawling suburbs, association founder Kompha Seth said. That’s not much compared to the Cambodian-American communities in Long Beach, California and Lowell, Massachusetts.
But that’s all the more reason to raise the community’s profile, said Kompha Seth, a former monk who fled to the US before the Khmer Rouge came to power.
“We have to build self-esteem. The answer should be in the next generation,” he said.
It’s a vital question for Cambodian-Americans as they watch their children grow up ignorant of their culture, Kompha Seth said.
It is an old story in the US: immigrants torn between whether their children should “assimilate” to American culture or keep the old one, but it’s a more tense situation to many Cambodian-Americans because they are not just any immigrants; they are survivors of one of the 20th Century’s worst human rights disasters.
“When I first came here, all I had were my sandals and my gray T-shirt-which used to be white. And it was November,” when Chicago’s temperatures regularly are in the single digits and lower, Dary Mien said. “For the Cambodian people who just stepped off the plane, they had nothing. I spent eight months on welfare.”
Although more prosperous than their fellow immigrants in California and Lowell, many Cambodian-Americans in Illinois are still scraping by, clinging to the fewer and fewer factory jobs in the Chicago area and hoping to lift their children to better lives, Dary Mien said.
“At this level, most of the basic needs are met,” she said. “But we didn’t have time to process the pain.”
This compounds the pressure on their children. Many of these first-generation US-born citizens deny their heritage altogether, Kompha Seth said.
“Some of the children say they come from the Philippines,” he said.
For just one example, one of the only Cambodian restaurants in Chicago, located in the city’s wealthy Lincoln Park neighborhood, calls itself “The Bangkok Inn” and sells its curries, noodles and rice dishes as “Thai style.”
A community center for immigrants can help turn the situation around for Cambodian-Americans by helping victims come to terms with the genocidal past, and their children become acquainted with the wide berth of their heritage, Dary Mien said.
“Part of our mission is to bring people beyond survival,” Kompha Seth said.
The project got off to a great start. In April, Prince Norodom Sirivudh traveled to Chicago to help announce the start of the capital campaign. It made front-page news and within months the Association had raised more than $1 million, Kompha Seth said.
Then came Sept 11 terrorist attacks.
“Some of the funding just locked up,” Dary Mien said.
As a result, the Association finds itself nearly $800,000 short and a June groundbreaking looming. Officials with the Association say they will resort to taking out loans if necessary, but would prefer to be debt free.
The important thing, however, is the ground is broken, Dary Mien said.
“This will help them become proud of their heritage and not just be victims,” she said. “The overall idea of this place is to have somewhere where we can be proud.”