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Escaping the Khmer Rouge --- and building a new life

Written By vibykhmer on Thursday, April 9, 2009 | 6:13 PM


St. Anthony parishioner Mara Doung.
Friday, April 10, 2009
By Doris Benavides
Tidings Online (Los Angeles, California, USA)


To Mara Doung it seems it was yesterday when he told God he was not ready to die, but in reality 33 years have passed.

"It was 7 p.m.," Doung clearly recalls. The then-15-year-old boy had been hiding for three days at a coconut farm in his native Cambodia. He was separated from his family by the Khmer Rouge, the communist forces led by Pol Pot that took over in April 1975.
Doung's great grandmother Prak Him, with whom he lived from the ages of 5 through 12, had taught him that there is only one God --- and he was not Buddha, as most Cambodians believed.

Doung is one of a very small number of Catholic Cambodians. Most of his countrymen practice Theravada Buddhism, their country's state religion before Pol Pot's rule. He is a parishioner of St. Anthony Church in Long Beach, a city that is home to the largest Cambodian community outside Southeast Asia (more than 100,000, including about 17,000 Cambodian-American).

Thousands of Cambodians, including Doung, fled to the United States in the late 1970s and early 1980s, escaping a communist regime that oversaw what is regarded as one of the worst genocides in human history. Its victims included Doung's father and a sister.

Growing community

About 95 percent of Cambodia's population of 12 million is Theravada Buddhist. Only 19,000 are Catholic. But though most immigrants to the U.S. adhere to the Theravada Buddhism of their homeland, the percentage of Christian (and Catholic) Cambodians is growing.

The genesis of this conversion locally took place in the 1970s, as Sister of Charity Lucille Desmond led an effort to establish an outreach program to newly-arrived Cambodians who settled in Long Beach. With the growth of this immigrant community, in 1992 a group of Catholic lay men and women started Our Lady of Mount Carmel Cambodian (parochial) Mission, to provide spiritual support to Southeast Asian citizens.

The majority of these refugees had arrived in Long Beach with nothing more than what they were wearing. They had been drawn here by family and friends, the potential for jobs, the coastal climate, and the Port of Long Beach's Asian imports.

Most of them, like Doung, had lost at least one close relative during the four years of the Khmer Rouge's genocide, and after the Vietnamese invasion in 1979 (by which time an estimated 2 million people had died).

Today, at Our Lady of Mount Carmel, a few blocks away from St. Anthony Church, recently-arrived Cambodians learn to adjust to the American way of life. Mary Blatz, the mission's coordinator and one of its cofounders, helps them navigate through the immigration, health and educational systems, and teaches English as a Second Language.

Blatz, a Columbia University graduate in International Education Development, helped begin the parochial mission in Long Beach at the request of Cambodian Bishop Yves Ramousse (whom she had met in previous years while he was living as a refugee in New York,) and with the sponsorship of the late San Pedro Region Auxiliary Bishop Carl Fisher.

Blatz had started working with refugees in 1979, training teachers who taught English to other refugees. In the early '80s she traveled to Hong Kong and Indonesia, where she continued working with refugees.

She still teaches ESL, advises on employment and refers people to a network of employers and attorneys she has built throughout the years. Her services, she said, are available to everyone, regardless of their faith.

But her main task is to provide spiritual and emotional support to the people with whom she has a special bond.

"It is my concern they know about God and the faith," Blatz said. "Most of the Cambodians, especially the elderly, fell in a strong depression as a result of the atrocities against them by the Khmer Rouge and during their stay in refugee camps in Thailand or Indonesia."

To help alleviate their burden, Blatz let the elderly build a Cambodian-style vegetable garden in the mission church's backyard that keeps them busy and helps them with their tight household budget.

Since its 1992 founding, the mission has grown, funded through grants, fundraisers and financial support of parishioners of St. Mary Church, Blatz's home church in her native Colts Neck, New Jersey.

Traumatic memories

Many times Blatz has also served as an intermediary between the oldest generations and the younger generations, Cambodian-Americans who only speak English and only know about the genocide through the stories told by their parents or grandparents. Some others barely remember their stay at the refugee camps.

"A vast majority of Cambodians lost a close relative, which left them with emotional wounds difficult to heal," Blatz noted. Many children lost one or both parents from the genocide which targeted religious people, professionals and intellectuals, those considered threats to the government.

Those who were not assassinated left the country and established in Long Beach, Boston, Virginia, Texas, Rhode Island and Washington. (A smaller percentage settled in Canada, France and Australia.) Locally, Catholic Cambodians are scattered in Long Beach, San Diego, Santa Ana, Pomona, San Bernardino and Los Angeles.

David Hort, now 33, arrived in the U.S. with his parents when he was 8 years old after living in a refugee camp in Thailand for several months. The family was among the few Cambodian Catholics.

Now a parishioner at Our Lady of the Rosary in Paramount, Hort recently married Sothea Keov, in her 20s, a Cambodian Buddhist he met in his native country. Marrying her fulfilled a dream, he says. Another is his desire to maintain Cambodian values and traditions, including close family relationships and respect for the elderly, values he fears may be vanishing among the younger generations.

Better days?

Today's Cambodian immigrants celebrate the church's "restart" in Cambodia, which began in the early 1990s, thanks to a youth wave that is changing the face of the church. There are struggles: the majority of catechists are between the ages 18-35, and they do not have any formal catechetical certification, because the local church has no official catechism school. But the situation is better overall.

Mara Doung has observed the change in trips he has made to his homeland, and is trying to help it along. With the support of his family in Cambodia, the businessman (he is a former owner of two restaurants and an importing sports business) started a nonprofit that helps the poor in Cambodia and helps law students to stop corruption, which is high in the Southeast Asian country.

He says he learned this from his great grandmother, who woke him up early every weekend to go feed the poor in a neighbor village.

"She woke early to cook noodles and rice," he said. "I used to ask her 'Why do you do this for no money?' She would answer me, 'When you grow up you will understand.'"

The father of five is now trying to instill the same values and beliefs on his children. Three of them attend St. Anthony Elementary School.

Still, the scars left from his years of hiding and escaping the communists affect on him. He remarried after two divorces, but had to quit his job due to sporadic panic attacks for which he is receiving psychological treatment.

In the meantime he went back to culinary school. He started Bible study with other Cambodians. And he hopes, he says, to become a deacon.

For more information about Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Cambodian Mission, call Mary Blatz at (562) 394-2216.

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