Cambodian women and children relax and play between the street and sidewalk outside their apartment building in the 1990s along W. Argyle Street in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago. (Photo: Stuart Isett)
Cambodian women and children relax and play between the street and sidewalk outside their apartment building in the 1990s along West Argyle Street in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago. (Stuart Isett)

CHICAGO - For Khemarey Khoeun, the photos bring back memories of growing up as a child in the Cambodian community of Chicago: Mothers caring for toddlers in front of an apartment block on a steamy summer day. Young men dapper in caps and sneakers, smoking cigarettes on a street corner. A couple wearing traditional Khmer clothes at their wedding party in a small apartment crammed with revelers.

The images appear in a recently published photo book, Krousar: On the Corners of Argyle and Glenwood, by Stuart Isett. The images convey the hardships and cultural dislocation as well as the resilience, adaptability and joy of the community of Cambodian refugees, many of whom were trying to find their place in American society after escaping the Khmer Rouge genocide and war that had ravaged their homeland.

In early 1990s Chicago, in the Uptown neighborhood on the north side, young Cambodian men hang out in a back alley of an apartment building and an elderly Cambodian woman and young boy work with krama, a traditional Khmer textile. (Stuart Isett)

Khemarey Khoeun's family first settled in the Austin neighborhood of Chicago's Uptown area, one of the city's poorest communities, in 1981.

It had been a long journey, from Siem Reap, a Cambodia city best known for the Angkor Wat temple complex, to the Sa Kaeo Refugee Camp in Thailand, which the family left in 1981 after a two-year stay.

The U.S. government accepted refugees from the camp, where thousands of desperate civilians had fled to escape heavy fighting between Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese army forces in northwest Cambodia from the mid-1970s to the early 1980s.

A young Cambodian man, Nuon, is seen as a police car patrols through the Uptown neighborhood, in Chicago. (Stuart Isett)

Until age 5, Khemarey Khoeun lived in the Uptown neighborhood surrounding the intersection of West Argyle Street and North Glenwood Avenue. Her family then moved to the suburbs, and she recalled how she had seen some Cambodian youth in Uptown being drawn into gang life on the streets.

"Around that time, [Cambodian] people used to hang out at the beaches nearby, Foster and Montrose, and it got to the point where people stopped going there because that was where the gangs were going at each other," she said. "We did not feel safe anymore."

Khemarey Khoeun, now 40, still lives in Chicago and is board president at the National Cambodian Heritage Museum and Killing Fields Memorial. In 2017, she was sworn in as a park district commissioner in Skokie, Illinois, making history as the first Cambodian American woman to be elected to public office at any level of U.S. government.

Cambodian Gino paints a gel tattoo on the arm of one of his friends in an apartment at a public housing building in Uptown, Chicago, 1990s. (Stuart Isett)

Looking back at her childhood, Khemarey Khoeun said it was understandable that many young people turned to the camaraderie and protection of a gang as they grew up in an uprooted and impoverished community.

"Their parents were often not available — both of them were working — and kids were left out by their own to decide for themselves," she said.

"And they grew up in an environment where their parents were survivors of genocide, wars, and had PTSD, traumas," she said. "How easy it would have been for them to be recruited into the Cambodian gangs. So that had become their lifestyle."

Stuart Isett is an American photographer based in Seattle, Wash. (Stuart Isett)

Focused on a community

When Stuart Isett was a young graduate student in photography, he mingled with Cambodian youths in the neighborhood, documenting their lives and their families from 1991 to 1994.

Almost three decades later, he revisited his collection and published it as a book in collaboration with Pete Pin, a photographer based in New York City, and Silong Chhun, a multimedia artist and a community advocate against the U.S. government deportation of Cambodian Americans. Chhun also founded Red Scarf Revolution, a clothing brand that promotes Cambodian culture and history.

Pin put Isett's images in order, and Chhun wrote the text of the book, published by Catfish Books. The book sold out soon after its release at the beginning of the year, and it is unclear whether another edition will be published.

Cambodian Gino smiles as he hangs out with his friends in Uptown, Chicago. (Photo: Stuart Isett)

Isett told VOA Khmer: "We called [the book] 'Krousar,' the common [Khmer] word for family. And it's about Cambodian families. And it's also about how these young men had to form their own family in some ways, which was separate from their Cambodian families. Because they were now living in the United States, so they formed these — I don't like using the word 'gang,' but they formed gangs."

Isett developed an interest in Cambodia's humanitarian crisis and conflict when he visited the refugee camps in Thailand after finishing college in the late 1980s. Since then, his interest in Southeast Asia has remained constant.

The images resonated personally with Chhun and Pin as Cambodian Americans. As the book's blurb puts it, "They would have been the young boys in the back of the room in many of Isett's images."

Silong Chhun is a Cambodian-American artist disciplined in multimedia, graphic design, photography, music production and videography based in Tacoma, WA. (Courtesy of Silong Chhun)

"When I first saw [the photos], I was really, really happy, because, in a sense, his photos were a reflection of how my friends and I grew up," said Chhun, 41, whose family had settled in a housing project in Tacoma, Washington, in 1981. Like many youths, Chhun said, he relied on his friends on the streets for "acceptance and value."

He said the photos also capture how elements of Cambodian culture survive in the U.S.

"There are celebrations and the dancing, the older folks and the younger folks doing it," he said. "Cambodia has a very community- and village-focused culture based on, you know, just celebrating together. And despite the hardships and challenges, we have to find some light in the dark to keep us going."

Elderly Cambodian men dance at an apartment building in Uptown, Chicago. (Stuart Isett)

Chhun said the text accompanying the photos was meant to provide context and help "humanize" the Cambodian experience and the struggle to find an identity and fit into American society. "We were labeled as this community that came from nothing and had to try to find a way in the country," he said.

A flood of refugees

Tens of thousands of Cambodians fled to Thailand from the mid-1970s onward to escape the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime and the subsequent protracted conflict between Pol Pot's forces and the Vietnamese army occupying Cambodia.

Most stayed in the Sa Kaeo and Khao I Dang camps, with 200,000 refugees passing through the latter camp until resettlement in the U.S., Australia and France, or until repatriation to Cambodia in 1993.

In 2016, a learning center opened on the former Khao I Dang site. Supported by the Thai government, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Committee of the Red Cross, the triumvirate that once ran the camp, the center features an exhibition that includes photographs, videos and text.

Gino gives a haircut to his friend at an apartment above the corner of Argyle and Glenwood, Uptown, Chicago, 1990s. (Stuart Isett)

The 150,000 Cambodian refugees who came to the U.S. 35 to 40 years ago were dispersed by the government to cities and towns across the country. The refugees were placed in housing projects, and eventually formed sizable communities in Chicago, Illinois; Seattle, Washington; Long Beach, California; and Lowell, Massachusetts.

"Many of them came from peasant backgrounds," said Eric Tang, director of the Center for Asian American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. "As a result, many had to remain on welfare for generations" because a mismatch of job skills and language made finding jobs difficult.

"So, what happens is they are immediately tracked into urban poverty in the United States, and that makes for a unique situation of Cambodian refugees and [other] Southeast Asian refugees," Tang told VOA Khmer.

In addition to struggling to lift themselves out of poverty, many Cambodians faced challenges associated with PTSD and other mental health ailments. By 2020, the population of Cambodians in the U.S. reached 340,000, and 13% continued to live under the poverty line, according to the Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. census data.  

Timely revelation​

Isett's photography book appears as public attention and debate grow about the Asian American immigrant experience. Writers such as Vietnamese American Viet Than Nguyen and Cambodian American Anthony Veasna So are gaining critical acclaim.

At an apartment in a public housing building on Chicago's north side, it's joy and trepidation at a traditional Cambodian wedding ceremony in the early 1990s. (Stuart Isett)

Sithea San, 54, said it was uncommon for her to see a book that intimately captures the Cambodian refugee experience in America, and Isett's work had helped her better understand the struggle of the tens of thousands of Cambodian refugees like her across the U.S.

"I thought my life settling into the American ways of life was hard, but seeing these photographs showed me how much harder and challenging it has been for other people," she said, noting that she arrived in Long Beach as a 14-year-old refugee in 1981.

Sithea, a Cambodian American community leader in Long Beach, is the co-founder of Cambodian Town Inc., one of the oldest Cambodian nonprofit organizations working to preserve the community's culture and traditions.

Unlike the many Cambodians who had no family outside their country, Sithea and her family were sponsored by a now-deceased uncle who had come to the United States in the early 1970s.

"My uncle and his family provided all the support I needed," she said. "They provided a place for me and my family to stay and made sure I was on track with school and stayed out of troubles."

Ricky, the groom, is escorted during a Cambodian traditional wedding ceremony in Uptown, Chicago, 1990s. (Stuart Isett)

Khemarey Khoeun said the book would help younger generations of Cambodian Americans understand what their parents went through and achieved by sheer resilience as they grappled with recovering from trauma and raising their families amid hardships.

"There is a younger generation who are growing up who don't know that history and are not as connected to the recent refugee experience because they were born here as the first generation," she said.

"We faced many challenges and barriers, and we still do today," Chhun said. But we are resilient. We are people that came from nothing, and now, about 40 years later, we've accomplished so much."