This is the second in the “Welcome Home” blog series featuring articles about groups that represent diaspora communities in Minnesota. Additional articles can be found here.
Minnesotans celebrated the Cambodian New Year in April at a day-long event in Mendota Heights featuring live music, drums, traditional dances, and Cambodian cuisine.
But those festivities bracketed a more solemn activity, an annual “Day of Remembrance” to honor victims of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime. This year, the ceremony paid tribute to survivors who worked with the Advocates for Human Rights to provide information about human-rights abuses for submission to a war crimes tribunal, the Extraordinary Chambers of the Court of Cambodia (ECCC).
Each received a Certificate of Recognition for telling their stories, a process that allowed them to put their experiences on the record.
Many Cambodians keep their memories bottled up, which is not healthy, says Yorn Yan, executive director of the United Cambodian Association of Minnesota (UCAM), which worked with the Advocates on the project. So he tells them: “Number one, you document your own story, then you feel better.” Second, “Then your document will stay with you forever and your children, your grandchildren will see it, it’s not a fake story. That’s a benefit for society in general.”
Yorn Yan’s father was among an estimated 1.7 million to 2.2 million Cambodians killed by the Khmer Rouge during their 1975-1979 reign. He fled to Thailand after the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in 1978 and eventually made his way to Minnesota, along with three brothers, two sisters, and their mother.
UCAM, which sponsored the New Year’s event at its offices, is a nonprofit that aims to promote opportunity for the state’s Cambodian community, which numbers about 10,000. UCAM was created in 1993 from the merger of two existing Cambodian organizations. Yorn Yan has been executive director since 2005, taking the reins after it suffered a crisis. He has a master’s degree in nonprofit management and administration, is author of the book New Americans, New Promise: A Guide to the Refugee Journey in America, and board president of the National American Cambodian Organization.
UCAM has nine employees but gets support from 300 volunteers, including a number of medical and mental-health professionals, and serves about 1,500 clients a year. Funding comes from the Greater Twin Cities United Way and the Metropolitan Area Agency on Aging.
It gets half of its revenue from fees for services provided by its Adult Day Care program, which offers health, social, and other services to Cambodian elders. Many of them are in poor health from the strains of living through civil war, the Khmer Rouge, and life in refugee camps. They have high rates of type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, mental health problems, and other chronic diseases that lead to strokes and heart attacks.
The Khmer Rouge era began just 42 years ago, Yorn Yan says, so many people age 50 or above continue to suffer trauma. “The starvation, the killing, the loss of loved ones, all of those bring poor health,” he says.
UCAM’s other programs are Elder Independent Living, Youth Development, Health Education, and Immigration. Under a five-year strategic plan it adopted in 2015, the organization is working to transition from one whose primary function was refugee resettlement to one that works to strengthen health, social, education, and economic opportunities for Cambodians and other refugee groups in Minnesota. One of its goals: develop new programs to help second- and third-generation Minnesota Cambodians understand their cultural values and traditions while still providing services for the elders.
When asked about main challenges, Yorn Yan says UCAM is trying to “do more with less” since the demand for services remains strong but federal and state funding has shrunk over the years.
The Advocates’ work with the Cambodian community began in 1990 when the organization helped conduct a mock trial at the Minnesota State Capitol of the Khmer Rouge leadership for the crime of genocide. The mock trial led to the Khmer Oral History Project, during which The Advocates’ volunteers interviewed 15 members of the Cambodian refugee community on videotape about their experiences during the years of the genocide, their experiences in refugee camps, and their emigration to the United States. Those interviews took place in 1992 and are available online at the Minnesota History Center. This year, the Center for Justice and Accountability asked The Advocates to interview participants in the Khmer Oral History Project and submit their information to the ECCC. The Advocates also worked with UCAM to identify Khmer Rouge survivors interested in sharing their information with the ECCC.
Twenty-two members of the Cambodian diaspora in Minnesota, including many who had participated in the mock trial and oral history project, provided detailed information about the crimes they experienced between 1975 and 1979 for the ECCC’s investigation. The interviews were conducted by James O’Neal, vice chair of The Advocates; Jennifer Prestholdt, deputy director; and Amy Bergquist, International Justice Program staff attorney. They were aided by volunteer translator David Chor.
David Chor and Yorn Yan of UCAM will be recognized for their contributions to documenting the stories of survivors of the Khmer Rouge in Minnesota’s Cambodian community with volunteer awards at The Advocates’ Human Rights Awards Dinner on June 15, 2017.
UNITED CAMBODIAN ASSOCIATION OF MINNESOTA
Volunteer opportunities: The group welcomes volunteers, especially with legal or medical credentials. Contact Yorn Yan at YornYan @comcast.net.
By Suzanne Perry, volunteer with The Advocates for Human Rights. This is the second in the “Welcome Home” blog series featuring articles about groups that represent diaspora communities in Minnesota. The first article highlighted the contributions of the Karen Organization of Minnesota.