LONG BEACH, CALFORNIA - In the 1970s and 1980s, tens of thousands of Cambodians immigrated to the United States. Many of those were helped by religious organizations, including the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. Today’s immigrants come largely from other parts of the world, but many of their needs are the same. And now the Lutheran refugee service is looking for help from refugees it once aided.
Sovannarorth Sok came to America as a refugee. Today, she helps them, as a case worker for the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.
The service wants former refugees to give back by helping new refugees settle into their new homes. So it has begun a coast-to-coast outreach campaign.
At a Cambodian New Year celebration in Long Beach, California, Sovanna and colleague Lauren Rymer hold a drawing for glass flowers, trying to attract a crowd and get contact information from former refugees.
Not everyone is interested.
"But we met some people who are happy to meet and have a conversation about their new life in the US," said Sovannarorth Sok.
For some, like Soroan Miller, it’s an easy sell. He thinks he may have been sponsored by the church as an orphan.
"So if any way, shape or form that I can help refugees besides Cambodians, or around the world, I would do it," he said.
The Lutheran service sponsored around 50,000 Cambodians between 1975 and 1998, over more than two decades of war. That’s a full third of all Cambodians that immigrated to the United States.
Today, the flow of Cambodian refugees is over. But refugees from other countries continue to seek American shores. The service feels Cambodians who have gone through the experience might be able to help.
Nop Vanny wins the drawing today. She says she sees value in the Cambodian immigrant experience.
"We came here first, so we know how easy and difficult and different life is," she said. "So if we meet those who have just come here, we can - and should - help them by giving them advice on how to live here and all the rules in this country."
The Lutheran service will continue its campaign throughout the United States wherever the old refugees might help the new. It has more prizes to give away. And a lot of work to do.