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Mental Health Issues Rife Among Cambodian Immigrants in US

FILE - Cambodia has some of the world’s worst mental health statistics. Experts say the large number of cases is partly a result of Khmer Rouge rule in the 1970s.

From the 1970s to the 1990s, as many as 100,000 Cambodian refugees resettled in the United States. But far from finding a sanctuary, many Cambodians in America have grappled with poverty, mental health problems and social isolation.

As a child, Jennifer Ka could not understand why her father was always angry. He seemed unable to love her and her siblings.

"It was very painful that I could not connect with him," Ka said. "He was really never there and present with us because he was stuck in his trauma; he never told me what happened to him in the Khmer Rouge."

Born to refugees who resettled in the United States in the 1980s, Ka says her parents survived the murderous Khmer Rouge regime, but were unable to leave behind the memories of that time.

Jennifer Ka with her father, Keith Ka, in 1997. (Courtesy Photo of Jennifer Ka)
Jennifer Ka with her father, Keith Ka, in 1997. (Courtesy Photo of Jennifer Ka)

Once in America, scars of the past were only compounded by poverty.

"We always had to worry about having enough," she said.

Communication breakdown

"Sixty percent of parents who went through the Pol Pot regime have mental health issues," said Mary Scully, program director at Connecticut-based Khmer Health Advocates. "If they have flashbacks, if they get anxious, then they go from being connected to being disconnected with their kids, which is very confusing for the child."

Scully has spent more than 35 years working with Cambodians, both in refugee camps and in Connecticut.

"[Cambodian-American children] think that their parents pull away from them because they were bad," she said. "Cambodian kids are worried about their parents, and those worries often translate into anger, and wanting to get away from the parents."

Since the early 1990s, Scully and other advocates have researched mental illness among U.S.-based Cambodians, who show a strong linkage between mental illness and chronic disease.

FILE - Hundreds of Cambodian-Americans from across the United States hold a protest at Sunnylands, California, on Feb. 15, 2016, to protest the visit of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and to demand greater respect of human rights in Cambodia.
FILE - Hundreds of Cambodian-Americans from across the United States hold a protest at Sunnylands, California, on Feb. 15, 2016, to protest the visit of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and to demand greater respect of human rights in Cambodia.

Compared with the U.S. population, Cambodian-Americans have twice the rate of Type 2 diabetes, seven times the rate of depression, and 15 times the rate of post-traumatic stress disorder.

"We were seeing mental health problems in the community right from the beginning," Scully said. "The people had bad headaches, nightmares. They are anxious. As time went on, we saw that wasn't going away."

But enough of the right kind of help was not available in the community.

"We knew what their problems were. We knew that they needed an intense amount of help, but we never gave it to them," she said.

Things were made worse when, in 1996, Congress reformed its welfare policy to cut down the assistance provided with food stamps, shelter and other benefits, which affected refugees who were not naturalized citizens.

Many community-based organizations then had to shift their focus from what they were mandated to do on economic development in order to help people get citizenship. Today, Khmer Health Advocates is one of only a few non-governmental organizations supporting the community, compared with about 100 before 1995.

"We would get a call in the middle of the night that people were saying, ‘If I lost my food stamps, if I lost my housing, I can't survive. I can't go through this again,' " Scully said. "They [lawmakers] had no idea of … the impact on the community."

The U.S. government refuses to pay attention to the issue, Scully said. "Cambodians are suffering in silence. They don't make enough noise. They don't have the big voice to get resources."

A failed policy

The U.S. policy of resettlement was fundamentally flawed, argues professor Eric Tang at the University of Texas, who recently published a book about Cambodian refugees living in the Bronx borough of New York City.

"It's the failure of a social state that doesn't provide enough support for them as a transition from being refugees to immigrants to residents, but sooner cut their welfare and others from support that they need to really build the life here in the U.S.," Tang said.

A community organizer who worked with the Cambodian refugee population in the Bronx in the 1990s, Tang saw the challenges of resettlement firsthand.

"The first thing they were confronted with was harsh living conditions, bad housing," he said. "Many of the refugees were not equipped to take the good jobs that were available, so they're stuck in the state of working poverty."

Additionally, he said, there was no long-term plan to help refugees establish themselves economically.

"The resettlement policy doesn't pay attention to, for instance, job training," he said. "[It didn't] allow people to heal from their trauma before we push them into sweatshop jobs."

That meant many children of refugees ended up unemployed, often becoming involved in criminal gangs. Many of them were convicted of crimes and have since been deported to Cambodia, a country that they may never have visited.

"The truth is that for many of these young Cambodians, they continued to struggle with working poverty," Tang said. "Some do not go to college, and many are profiled, targeted by the criminal justice system, and subjected to deportation to Cambodia."

Ka, however, returned voluntarily. She decided to visit Cambodia in her early 20s. She was born in the U.S. and barely speaks Khmer, so she knew very little about the country. But, she said, she would come to call it home.

"Not until I came to Cambodia did I come to understand my history, [to] be there with my land, my people, and feel that I was finally home," she said. "Then I started to deeply understand the pain my parents suffered from the genocide that I was not aware of before."

Correspondent Ten Soksreinith reports for VOA's Khmer Service.

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