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Cambodian Immigrants Make Impact on City in US Northeast

While American cities such as New York, Los Angeles and Miami are known for their immigrant populations, waves of immigrants have shaped a much smaller U.S. city for almost 200 years. VOA's Suzanne Presto takes us to this town and the large Cambodian population that calls it home.

The hustle and bustle of the Khmer Angkor market on a Saturday afternoon, as Cambodian families pick up fresh vegetables, fruits and bottled sauces.

What makes this scene unusual is not what these families are purchasing, but where the Khmer Angkor market is located, in a small city in the northeastern United States.

Lowell, Massachusetts. Population: 105,000

This 180-year-old city, once defined by its looming industrial mills is now known for something else, its large Cambodian population.

"A lot of immigrants tend to come to Lowell because of job opportunity, fair housing, cheap renting houses," says Rithy Uong, a native of Cambodia and a city councilor in Lowell.

There hasn't been an official tally since 2000, but local politicians estimate 25,000 Cambodians call the city home. Cambodian community leaders say the number is perhaps as high as 35,000, and that Lowell boasts the second largest Cambodian population in the United States, behind only Long Beach, California.

A Lowell historian and resident, Mehmed Ali, says Cambodian refugees first came to the city in the 1980s to work in computer manufacturing plants.

Mr. Ali says, "Lowell became a center of primarily Cambodian immigration. What happened is somebody opened a store, then a Buddhist temple. More families contacted cousins who were spread out across the U.S. and said 'Hey! Come to Lowell.'"

The Cambodian influence is apparent in the East Asian-inspired architecture of a shopping center and a number of store signs written in Khmer, with its precise loops, half circles and flourishes.

But Cambodians were not the first wave of immigrants to call this northeastern city home. Irish laborers established themselves in Lowell in the 1820s, followed by other Europeans. Mr. Ali, whose grandfather came to Lowell from Turkey a century ago, says in those days, each group created its own neighborhood of ethnic stores, social clubs and religious organizations.

However, they all shared the public school system. Mr. Ali says, "At one time the school system had 52 separate nationalities represented at Lowell High School."

The diverse population of Lowell, Massachusetts, is still evident in the high school's hallways, where white, black, Latino and Asian students roam between classes.

Cambodians account for one-third of the student body. Of the more than 4,000 students in grades nine through 12 about 1,400 are Cambodian.

Bill Samaras is the headmaster at Lowell High School. He says ethnically based after school programs such as the Asia Pacific Club, Hispanic Club and Black Unity Club are popular.

"That gives, especially to students who come from various countries, a chance to meet in a comfortable area and get to speak to children who speak their own language and share their own culture, and that serves as a base for them. The children who have already been here, who run those clubs, help them integrate into the school," says Mr. Samaras.

In addition to after-school clubs, some courses are geared toward youths of certain ethnicities. There are even classes in Khmer language and culture.

City Councilor Rithy Uong spends his days as an assistant principal at the school.

"The uniqueness of Lowell High School is the diverse population and the willingness of the students to work together and to strive together and to make a difference for their families and themselves," says Mr. Uong.

Some community initiatives focus on minority youth, such as a program that steers teenagers away from gang life. The director of this Streetworker program says the small city of Lowell has 30 active gangs, many comprised of warring Asian and Latino youth.

Cambodian families have organized a variety of assistance associations and community outreach programs, and Cambodians have also integrated into the community.

Historian Ali says this is apparent in Cambodian Rithy Uong's election to the city council.

Mr. Ali says, "He wasn't elected by the strength of the Cambodian community. He was elected by the white community at large, so that statement alone illustrates how welcoming Lowell has been to the immigrant population."

So much so it leads Cambodian resident Tony Roun to say, "Lowell, to be honest with you, I sometimes feel like Lowell is Phnom Penh sometimes."