APEX Express

APEX Express – 9.1.22 – Mental Health: Compounding Traumas in Southeast Asian Communities


A weekly magazine-style radio show featuring the voices and stories of Asians and Pacific Islanders from all corners of our community. The show is produced by a collective of media makers, deejays, and activists.

Hosts Nate Tan and Hien Nguyen interview Program Director of the New Light Program at the Center for Empowering Refugees and Immigrants, Elijah Chhum. Tonight, we’ll be touching on immigration, intergenerational trauma and mental health in the Southeast Asian community. 

About Center for Empowering Refugees and Immigrants (CERI): Center for Empowering Refugees and Immigrants (CERI) is a nonprofit organization based in Oakland with a mission to improve the social, emotional, psychological, economic, and physical health of refugees and immigrants affected by war, torture, genocide or other forms of extreme trauma.

Founded in 2005 by a group of bilingual/bicultural mental health professionals, CERI provides culturally-relevant mental health and other social services. We are dedicated to transforming the lives of refugees and immigrants and their families, many of whom suffer from weakening intergenerational relationships, layers of complex needs, and exposure to violence and trauma both in their current environments and in their native countries.

To learn more about CERI, visit: https://www.cerieastbay.org/

Mental Health: Compounding Traumas in Southeast Asian Communities Show Transcripts September 2022

[00:00:35] Nate: Good evening, you are tuned in to APEX Express. We are bringing you an Asian and Asian-American view from the Bay and around the world. We are your hosts, Nate Tan and Hien Nguyen. And tonight we’re talking with Elijah Chhum Program Director of New Light at the Center for Empowering Refugees and Immigrants also known as CERI.

Tonight we’ll be touching on immigration, intergenerational trauma and mental health in the Southeast Asian community.

[00:00:58] Hien: Stay locked in on APEX Express.

[00:01:03] Nate: Hey, Elijah. Welcome to the show.

[00:01:08] Elijah: Thanks for having me Nate, Hien excited to be here.

[00:01:11] Nate: Excited to have you. Before we start, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

[00:01:15] Elijah: Yeah. My name is Elijah Chhum. I am the Program Director for New Light, which is a wellness outreach program to serve those that are deported to Cambodia. And it’s based here in Oakland, California at our center called the Center for Empowering Refugees and Immigrants. And I come from Minnesota. So that’s the first thing people want to know about me, actually. It’s funny because not just with the activist community, but with our elders, they always wanna place who you are by knowing who your parents are. So they wanna know where you’re from, where they live. Whose child are you, who do you belong to so that they can kind of position you in society. So I typically try to tell people, I’m from Minnesota, I’ve been here for the last eight years and yeah, it’s been such a journey to find community here in the East Bay.

[00:02:06] Hien: Have the elders been able to figure out who your family is? Any connections?

[00:02:12] Elijah: Yeah. You know, I work with, Bong Mory, Mory Chhom and I’ve worked with her in so many different capacities in San Francisco and youth development and mental health. And it took a while, like maybe three or four years, but I went over to her house for a baby shower. And I explained to her parents, cuz of course her parents asked me who I was and then I described, oh, I’m from Minnesota.

And then, they’re like where in Minnesota? I was like Rochester, Minnesota. And then they kind of just guessed it because my dad is a pastor in Rochester and he did a tour of different churches here in California, some years before me even knowing Bong Mory so I think her parents met my parents before we even met. 

[00:02:55] Nate: Wow. And just for our listeners, Elijah, when he says Khmer, he’s talking about Cambodian people and he is talking about this, really tight-knit community that he works in full of Cambodian people and, they just happen to know his parents.

[00:03:09] Elijah: I know, it just means our world is so small. And, I think the beautiful thing about the resettlement and the diaspora is that, we always find each other, that’s kinship. That’s why we move and create large communities in different places in the US like Minnesota or Long Beach or Stockton or Fresno, Modesto, Oakland, Lowell, Lynn, Massachusetts, places in Philadelphia and Houston, Texas, and Chicago and Portland, Oregon and Tacoma, Washington. I don’t know if I named all of it, but it’s so surprising. It’s not surprising where you can find Cambodian folks but it’s beautiful when you hear about the immigration story.

[00:03:54] Hien: Nate’s actually told me that his family’s resettlement story starts in Minnesota. Maybe you guys are related.

[00:04:00] Nate: I tell Elijah that all the time. I think Elijah and I are related cause I have family in Rochester, so I’m pretty sure we’re related.

[00:04:06] Elijah: I know we need to connect this. I don’t know if we’re related because we don’t have a lot of blood relatives in Rochester but I I’m sure our people are close somehow. And I bet there’s a connection. I know there is.

[00:04:19] Hien: All right. Well, Elijah, you know, Nate and I, we are people who are very obsessed with freedom. And so we’re curious, what does freedom mean to you?

[00:04:30] Elijah: Oh, what a good question. Freedom. Freedom is something that we are. Always searching for in our community and really what brought us here after the genocide. And it was that hope and that promise, that in these new lands that they would find that and that in America, we would have it, for the next generation for the kids. And for themselves, our parents who are survivors. And also for my siblings, I consider them 1.5 generation, cuz my sister was also born in the genocide camps and had to flee Cambodia to the Thai border with my mom and dad. And in the Thai camps, my brother was born. And so all of them as a family, a small family unit were searching for freedom. And then when they arrived in 82, I was born, I was one of the first to be born I feel like I’m one of the oldest second generation here. And in some ways I think I took advantage or took it for granted. I didn’t realize all that our Cambodian community has gone through. And not until really that I joined the anti-deportation movement almost three years ago with CERI did I have to question freedom. For me, freedom is what the coalition is doing together, standing up for our community, raising our voices, bringing the youth and the elders together, intergenerationally to talk about healing and mental health and raising the stigma of deportation, raising the stigma of incarceration.

 Doing this in our language and healing and raising our voices in our own cultural ways, so freedom to me is doing all that so that we can come together and gather and sing and dance and eat and, be joyous, live in abundance. So I think there are moments of freedom that I have felt in the community, and where it’s not always the fight and where we can rest and where we can just embrace our loved ones.

So that can give us the strength to fight another day.

[00:06:40] Nate: that’s a really poetic way to put it. 

[00:06:42] Elijah: It seems like a metaphorical story, but everything that I said , there are visions and memories of everything that I’ve gone through, with both of you, with our organizations and just the families and the community members and individuals that we hold, and these are really the words of some of the people that I talked to just like recently, a family member that lost his brother to deportation. He said that, he’s losing faith in the us government and these elected officials. But what he did say is until the day he dies, he will always remember that the community stood up for his brother and for the family.

[00:07:21] Nate: I think that’s such a powerful. Testament to the community work and the community effort to really combat these systems, like there’s a systemic issue that kind of plagues the Cambodian community. And, you mentioned mental health and trauma, and it seems like mental health and trauma is something that is synonymous with the Cambodian experience.

And I think the question becomes when does it stop? I wanna ask a question that is kind of in that same vein. And you talked about working in the mental health field and doing mental health work and doing the mental health work of the movement, specifically as it pertains to Cambodian Americans and Southeast Asian people. You said we’re trying to destigmatize or raise awareness about these issues, deportation, mental health trauma. Why is it that, in your experience, mental health is so taboo in the Southeast Asian community, from our elders, to our parents, to Southeast Asian people in the hoods that you named, not a lot of our community members talk a lot about mental health and what do you think makes it taboo?

[00:08:25] Elijah: That’s a good question too. Why don’t we talk about this? Why is it normalized? It’s all a spectrum. I think in some families and communities, it has talked about almost too much, too much for a young person to hold their parents’ trauma. And then in other instances it’s completely silent, but we know it’s not silent. We know that silence is so loud because those unspoken messages get passed down to us in so many different ways. If a mom or a father is having nightmares and the child hears it, or sees that their parents are super hyper vigilant on noises and sounds and triggers the child picks up those cues on how to react to their parents that are not necessarily telling them, that they’re having these bad memories or they’re depressed or have anxiety, but children pick up on those energies and those feelings and emotions. And then they’re given certain cues about how to process their own emotions. And so that’s how some of those cycles begin. I don’t want to say that mental health is just a taboo issue only in our community. I think it really stems from looking at all of us in the US community, all ethnic groups, all people in the US system, because we have to look at the system that we’re in. We have to look at racial capitalism. The system only wants to reward you if you are able bodied, if you are cis male, white male, and it’s not going to reward you if you’re queer or trans or LGBTQ or part of an ethnic group or surviving genocide. And so in many ways folks from Cambodia do not fit what this capitalistic world wants is to use our labor. And so I think there’s a lot of different issues of why mental health isn’t spoken about in our community. How do you have the language to talk about such horrors and memories that you don’t wanna pass on to your family members? And so in some ways they’re trying to protect us from not talking about these issues, but they don’t understand that by not talking about these issues. We’re also hiding ourselves and hiding the things that we are we go through. And then there’s a disconnect, we need to know our history. We need to know our culture and we need to know what our parents go through, so that we can support them and help them, but also to hopefully break these cycles.

[00:11:03] Hien: Yeah, I really like when you named we need to have language to be able to talk about mental health. What does that even look like? How does the Cambodian, or even the Southeast Asian community reckon with mental health, like how do we name it? What does that look like to us? I like don’t really know Vietnamese, but I’ve heard mental health be referred to a sickness of sorts, but language and translation in translation, it has always been such a difficult thing for me. And I imagine that, as an organization that provides services to primarily, Khmer elders, what does that process of naming mental health issues look like for you?

[00:11:45] Elijah: CERI has done such a wonderful job of normalizing mental health resources, like therapy, individual therapy, psychiatric help, medicine management, peer support groups and all sorts of different modalities of healing. And while trying to incorporate as many cultural healing modalities as possible, like when CERI was founded to have monks come in and bless the space. So there’s a lot of chanting and Buddhist rituals that are happening at CERI and bringing in the custom and the culture. So all of that is already in my language or Bali and so a many of the things that we do, we try to interpret, same time, there might not be a word exactly translatable so we speak around the word. What we have been focusing on recently is trying to hire an MSW or MFT, a therapist that is Khmer and speaks, Cambodian speaks Khmer and there’s not a lot of folks that are out there that speak Khmer and are therapists, but there’s a few in the community that we lean onto and there’s one that we just hired, at CERI through a grant. And so we’re really thankful and excited that there could be a provider that does not need an interpreter in the room.

Previously at CERI, we’ve had many years of a provider outside the community, speaking English, and then an interpreter. And then now we just have to figure out that dance of how do you build the relationship with someone that’s mediating the language? How does that provider still have that relationship with their client or with their community member that they’re serving so that it’s not all the onus is not all on the interpreter to hold both relationships and all relationships.

We’re not perfect. We don’t have all the answers, but we’re trying, and we’re doing our best to provide for our community. My Khmer is not good at all. And my elders they all tease me, but they also encourage me and they say, my Khmer is getting better every day. And they also say, it’s not what I say, but it’s how I say it. So it’s really about my tone, my body language, and really the advocacy. Because when they come to us, it’s not like they have Khmer papers. They have English papers, they have forms from social services and different benefits and medical bills or, prescriptions, like all these different things in English. So they really do need our English language skills. And then it’s about interpreting what it is. I encourage anyone from our community that has very little language to get in the work. I think the best way to learn your own language is to work with an elder who’s monolingual. You’re out at a governmental agency and that’s it, you gotta do it. And honestly, for the last three, almost four years being at CERI that’s basically how I learned my language again.

[00:14:57] Hien: And it just sounds like building community is enough sometimes. Even with all of the therapist and the modalities, just having a community to be together sounds like enough sometimes. And I think that’s what I really appreciate about CERI and the Khmer elders and all of the youth is that, sometimes it’s just about creating space and being present. My favorite times at CERI are often when after a day of being at a rally or organizing CERI will just invite us to come eat fried fish on the floor and that feels like healing.

[00:15:38] Elijah: Yeah, thanks for saying that that actually reminds me a lot of the discussions we’ve had at CERI during the pandemic is that secret sauce of CERI that you’re saying , what makes CERI so special is that we allow our community members to be at ease at CERI that you’re not necessarily kicked out after your program or after your service, that you can hang out, that you could cook a meal, share a meal, have fellowship with someone in the waiting room. There’s always such dynamic interactions happening because you never know who’s going to be in that waiting room. If it’s a provider or an activist or a student or an intern or an elder with their grandchildren, youth groups coming out and that’s what makes CERI special are those little moments in between meetings. And so when the pandemic happened, we realized that’s what was missing. We were all on zoom. We trained our elders to get on zoom, and that was a feat in itself, thanks to so many of our coworkers, especially Kanley and Thavery. But we realize they don’t want just the service of that hour. They just wanna kick it and chop it up and talk and sit on the couch and open their bag and they have a few snacks. They wanna share it and eat or tea, and then they’ll go back out in the world.

[00:17:00] Nate: I think this gets to your point, Elijah, that mental health work is a multi-level work. There’s like the individual work, right? That happens between you and maybe a healthcare provider, a therapist, there’s a community work, right? Building a community, finding a place to feel safe, finding a place to hang out, finding a place where you can just be who you are authentically. And I think there is like systemic change or systemic healing that is really present in. In theory, where they’re given services so they can live full lives. Interpretation. There’s a combined mental health worker that you all just hired. There’s like system changes that can bring about healing. I think what really speaks to me is I wish these were available nationwide. And I say that because I think in the Southeast Asian community and the Cambodian community, the only representation I see as Southeast Asian people and Cambodian people on TV is the Clint Eastwood movie, there’s Hmong people in that movie and they’re portrayed a certain way or

[00:18:08] Elijah: Yeah, I have the Clint Eastwood movie.

[00:18:11] Nate: way. and I don’t think these, these things are necessarily, stereotypes, but speak to somewhat of a reality of our place in this world. And I wonder what those realities would look like in healed communities. Right? Like I wanna see what a healed community representation would look like in, in popular culture or in media.

[00:18:35] Hien: I think that’s great. For listeners who don’t know, actually a lot of how Elijah and really all of us became friends is back in 2018, there was a mass raid on Cambodian people and we didn’t really know what to do and in response to it, we gathered everyone we knew who might have been impacted. We took ourselves to CERI in Oakland. We crammed ourselves in, into this small living room of this Victorian house, probably over 50 people. and we just balled our eyes out. We just did not know what to do. And then coming after it, there was just a burst of energy to continue fighting, and moments of deep trauma like that I think we all needed to be there and experience that, as a tool to begin healing and that whole journey too, was just a healing experience. I don’t know if y’all wanna touch up on just the raids and what came out of it.

[00:19:41] Elijah: Yeah, the Pardon Refugee campaign in March of 2019. That’s when all the activists and organizers from Asian Prisoner Support Committee and the legal support team from Asian Law Caucus and folks from Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity like there was all these folks that had the language, and to me it seemed like the blueprint to how to fight, and I didn’t have that in my toolkit, I didn’t know how to raise my voice in that way. So public speaking in front of ICE that one day after the CERI moment, I would say that’s what really got me to do my first speech in public. I remember, Nate saying hope is contagious and it was, and in some ways we just had to believe that we would do it. For me, it was just answering the prayer of a mom who is on her knees, a grandma who’s on her knees telling us the story of genocide and losing her son and losing her husband. And then at the same time, during the resettlement in the nineties losing another son and then her now on her knees, some bad prayer form telling us. Asking us and pleading with the community to save her last son. And that was enough, I think for me and for the rest of the community. And of course we were all in tears and it was healing because it was finally a release like we’re we were lifting that shame and the stigma and the secrecy that family suffered alone. If they had a loved one that was about to be deported, many people just suffered alone because they didn’t have the resources or didn’t know that a community would stand by them. So for us to promise to stand by these families, it was healing and it was also empowering. And, Mona Afary our executive director still says, the moment that we became our name Center for Empowering Refugees and Immigrants was that moment. We built that support system around these families and around our elders and around the activists too, that we all stood up together as a community, there was kids running around at age 2, 3, 4, that day. And they’re with us now at CERI as young people and really young daughters, they were the ones that fought for their parents to stay. So it was an incredible moment in time and still the legacy has such impacts of like how CERI operates to this day.

[00:22:18] Hien: If folks want to really get into intergenerational organizing, this is how you do it. You go into anti deportation work, because that was the most incredible display of just generational activism and organizing I’ve ever seen. We had elders haul themselves in large coach buses to the state capital. We had young people plead to city council members to, protect their fathers from deportation. We had mothers taking care of everyone, while this is all happening. And so I think, in terms of mental health, I feel like this was a time for me to reflect on how much of that trauma has compounded itself through decades and still continues now.

[00:23:08] Elijah: Yeah. And I also want to say that there are protective factors, too. We came here to live and to survive and hopefully the dream is to thrive and from our communities, our artists, our poets, our dancers and, different kinds of leaders in the community. And I definitely think the activist community has made a lot of this possible too. People talk about this Renaissance, that’s coming from the Khmer community, the second generation I don’t know if I have all the language to talk about that, but there’s queerness in our community. I’m queer and being a part of the activism for me to stand up for folks of the 1.5 generation that were older than me, I was always afraid of older cis male, hetero Khmer men and I was always teased and bullied. There’s words, in Khmer that they called me but being at CERI doing this work. Holding the 1.5 generation holding those that are just like 2, 3, 4, 5 years older than me. And those are such triggers, like even saying it now like gives me like shivers down my spine, Seeing their kindness, their gentleness, their tenderness, how much they love each other and care for each other and there for each other. How much of the work I’m doing now with New Light is holding spaces for these folks to talk about their emotions, to vent, to let out their anger and their depression and sadness and rejection and vulnerability. It has really actually given me the strength to be more vulnerable and to reveal more of myself and to share with the community and with this community and my community that I’m queer and that I’m in love and I can have a boyfriend and I can bring him to these spaces. And now the elders always ask like, where is my songsaa where is my oun, even the folks in Cambodia, when I tell them about my queerness, all of a sudden they’ll be like, oh, I have a cousin and he’s really cool. Or I think, or suspect my daughter might be, and then we have a conversation about it. so yeah, I just wanna say that alongside the trauma and mental health and all the risk factors and all the environments that we’re in, there’s still something so powerful and strong about our community and deep-rooted that we want to thrive that we came here to thrive and I know resilience sometimes people an issue with it people love to call certain communities resilient only because they wanna measure how much crap we can handle, like oh, look at this resilient community. They can just handle all of this. Like, Should we be able to, I don’t want to be that resilient. Like I just want to be happy and strong and have enough for my community and to live my dreams and to have the youth live their dreams and the elders to live in peace, but yeah, I do want to highlight that the only reason why CERI can be CERI is that we have this longing to have a good life with each other, and I really do see that and not just at CERI I definitely see that within the coalition too. There’s so much wisdom and heart and that I’ve learned outside and it’s such a process

[00:26:37] Nate: From hearing what you talked about, it almost sounds like healing is contagious. I don’t know if contagious is the right word, cuz we’re like pandemic ish kind of era. We don’t want anything to be contagious, but there’s an inertia. There’s inertia in healing, right? it’s like a domino effect from what I hear and I remember the part in refugees campaign to prevent the deportations of people in the bay area I think one of the inertia moments for me was when I saw young people, like I saw this 10 year old girl who spoke for her father and was like, don’t deport my father. And she spoke in front of all these city council members and city council members are not smiling people. They’re not happy people, not all of ’em. And she like poured her heart out. And I think what was truly amazing was the city council passed a resolution in support of preventing the deportation of her father. And it was inertia for me to see this young person come into power, to see this young person be vulnerable and to see this young person demand, call it, whatever you wanna call it. Justice, freedom liberation for her father was a moment for me to be like, I need to demand so much more for my community as well. I still think that inertia that feeling that moment, that momentum, I guess that’s why they call it a movement lives today. We want to see more people be free in every way in every capacity. We wanna see them be more free in the lives that they live free from oppression free from physical oppression, free from mental oppression in every way we want our communities to be free. And I think that’s, what’s really powerful about what you shared and how we got into community with each. 

[00:28:28] Elijah: Yeah. I like the idea of inertia and momentum because it also makes me feel like, well, when is it time to rest? And is that okay? And that’s such a hard thing to say in the activism community, because part of what we’re doing is trying to fight systemic oppression that never rests. So how can we rest? When do we feel like we deserve to rest and when is it enough? It’s hard to tell ourselves that, to normalize, resting and taking a break. And again, that’s all part of mental health and our emotional health and wellness. How do we do it? 

[00:29:08] Nate: But rest is work. Like rest is a part of the work. And I say that because the intentionality behind rest is to have the ability to keep going, right? Like rest is so crucial and so important it needs to be embedded in the work. Right. And I know this gets used pretty cliche-y. I don’t know if that’s a word, but it gets used a lot that these things are revolutionary, but rest is revolutionary, right? Like the ability to rest in capitalism’s chaos is necessary. In some ways that’s liberatory, right. To rest in chaos to find peace and chaos, to demand peace and rest in chaos. I think it’s such a momentous thing when my parents are like, I’m not coming into work today because I wanna spend time with my family. I’m not coming into work today cuz I wanna rest. Like I think that’s a powerful moment. That’s a small instance to something larger, right? Like when Khmer elders are like I want to see my children thrive. I wanna see my children happy. I want to take my children out. I want to take time off board to go to my children’s graduation. Like these things that are not work right. But acts of rests, I think are disruptions to oppression that I think are really crucial to this work and moment. That was my hot take and my ramble I don’t know listeners, if that makes sense to you all, but it made sense in my head.

We’re gonna take a quick little break, stay tuned into APEX Express on 94.1, KPFA and 89.3 KPFB in Berkeley and [email protected]. This is Find My Way by Rocky Rivera.

[00:30:53] Hien: Welcome back. You’re tuned into apex express on 94.1 KPFA and 89.3 KPFB in Berkeley and [email protected].

[00:37:53] Nate: You just listened to Serve the People featuring Rachel Lastismosa of Dirty Boots from the Anakbayan Long Beach May Day Mixtape. Before that was Find My Way by Rocky Rivera. 

[00:38:04] Hien: We are here with Elijah Chhum program director of New Light at the Center for Empowering Refugees and Immigrants talking about immigration, intergenerational trauma and mental health in the Southeast Asian community.

[00:38:15] Nate: You talked a little bit about the New Light program we introduced you as the program director for new light and new light is a pretty big project. A pretty big idea, right? Is how do we extend care to people who have historically been forgotten, which is people who’ve been deported. and you’ve overseen this program since it’s founding, can you talk more about the program? What it, what, where is it at now? What does it do? Who has it helped? How many people has it helped? Anything that you find that listeners can really, support through the new light?

[00:38:51] Elijah: Yeah, so I am one of the co-founders of New Light program. The other co-founder is Kanley Souet-Pich so she is our program manager I am the director, and just recently we were able to get fully funded for the next year and a half or so. And now we have two other folks that are doing direct service and then two behind the scene folks like a clinical consultant, because we’re not therapists, so we’re not doing clinical work, like social worker would do, or a therapist would do, we’re doing informal counseling and peer support and really a wellness outreach for those that have been deported. So the story really begins with folks like yourself that went to Cambodia in 2019 on a trip to just have a listening session with the community to see what folks the needs are. I think at first it might have been like a legal clinic with those from a new from Asian Law Caucus and Eddie Zheng of course, Stephanie Sarath, you all went out there and Maria Tucker, to listen to the community to offer support and resources. And I remember when you came back, the big take was that you wish you brought someone from the mental health community to come along on that trip and to discuss all the things that we know now or at that moment we knew then. It was so beautiful to hear how much you held that mental health space in your heart and that planted the seed that, okay, one day this is going to happen. And I think then the following year, and this is now pandemic fast forward, the pandemic happened, in a kind of silver lining way CERI now is all virtual mental health telehealth and really trained us to be on virtual spaces, giving mental health care and support groups and in individual support groups and town halls all online and getting our elders accustomed to that. In some strange way that really set the foundation for us to begin this work with folks in Cambodia. And we really use Facebook because that’s where the community is and is easy to use as a hub and to organize and to do video chats on Facebook. And we also trained them on zoom. And so we have more of our gatherings on zoom, but when it began there was just very little people doing it. Me and a couple other staff at CERI and me, Kanley, and one more and we were holding onto that for almost a year balancing maybe 10, 12 folks. And at first I was so shy, people were like, don’t use the word mental health that might scare ’em off. And so then we kept on calling it wellness outreach instead of mental health outreach. And it was them after these first six, seven core people that met. That first year we got to 12 or 13, they were the ones that called it mental health. And they called it therapy. Although we were like, it’s not therapy, but you can call it informal counseling or peer support group or any other words. But of course it felt like healing to them and it felt like it was, building these relationships and bridges to folks in the us, because in many ways they felt the rejection of their ties in the US. And that has a lot to do with incarceration in itself because they were already separated in the us before they were detained and then from ice and then deported. And then of course not only the thousands miles away, they’re also, 13, 14, 15 hours apart too having phone calls in the middle of the night is not going to be easy to keep those relationships. And then at the same time, these relationships are already burdened by a lot of the times our monetary needs the folks in the US feel. Maybe people in Cambodia only want one thing but these folks in Cambodia need desperately so much more than just Western Union, they need connection they need emotional support, they need community. Ruth Wilson Gilmore says ” the carceral state is organized abandonment” and so I feel like with the New Light program we’re trying to understand what it would be like if we no longer abandoned our community members. When I say that, I think about one person that has told me he no longer tries to call home because he can’t handle the rejection any longer. He can’t handle phone calls that are hanging up on him or not picking up. I think we’re all healing in this work together. And for me, I’m learning so much from them and a lot of these folks are teachers and in ways they’ve told me that although they are separated from the US and they do want to return, they’ve also built a life out there. Some of them have been there for 20 years. One story I heard was that they were waiting to be deported, to become a father because they knew they didn’t want to become a father in the US when they knew that there was imminent deportation. And so thinking that there were waiting to develop into fatherhood until they were deported is something I hold onto because, and that shows me that there is still life out there. And they still want to build a life out there. So there’s just so many stories, so much inspiration. And every day we’re learning something new. It’s such a wonderful gift, to be in community with these folks out there.

[00:44:33] Hien: Sounds like a really incredible program, a very unique one too, it really stuck with me when you said, you’re organizing connection. You’re organizing community in this capacity. And I think that is incredibly beautiful and important. Because I think there, there is hope, right? I think we’ve seen in the past couple of years, Khmer folks who’ve been deported, been able to come home and hopefully, we see a wave of that so that people can be reunited. But I think until then New Light really models a necessary program that covers a very unique population that has ties to the United States and ties to Cambodia, but feel very much in the middle. And I think bridging the gap together almost like a community, even a institutional way feels incredibly important. I was working with a deportee in Vietnam who named that she needed mental health services because before she got deported, that was a very specific thing that she needed to do. And when she was deported she left behind children in the United States and she’s trying to get back to them. And so one thing that she’s looking towards is finding those resources and it’s been hard, because, there’s all these clinical things, licensing has to happen, but because, mental health services might not necessarily exist in those countries, but exist in the United States. We have to have different framings around how we address it, and so I think what y’all are doing is incredibly creative too.

[00:46:17] Elijah: Yeah, thank you and again, we’re working around therapists that can’t do this work outside of where they’re licensed. This really is peer support groups we work with folks that have been impacted themselves by incarceration and deportation and in ways this incredible work is upon their shoulders and in their hearts. And our job is to hold them and create infrastructure and support, training, and to process all that they’re holding and the stories that they hold. And at the same time, allowing them space for their own transformation and their own independent healing because the stories that come up are very closely tied to what you know they have gone through and are still going through themselves. So this is such special work, a unique work, as you’ve mentioned it feels groundbreaking. It feels so new in so many ways. It feels like a new frontier and I guess that’s what’s exciting about it as well. It’s finally in our community, it’s no longer living in the shadows, I know there’s so many cliches with, our Khmer experience but that’s how it feels. It feels like we’re going through every crevice, every dark tunnel every place of hopelessness, and not to say that these folks are hopeless, but I guess that’s the name of new light Kanley came up with that name. And I love it because we do need to see ourselves in a new light and these folks deserve to see themselves in a new light and get to become the person they want to become this very day, the day that we meet. And again, we first started with individual support and that’s very much the CERI model too, is that we need to care for the person in an individual way to gain their trust and build a relationship before we put them in a group setting and then a year later we got to groups and just the energy, the light, the spark, all the things that we could never imagine are happening here in these groups. And I’m so honored and thankful that they’ve trusted us on this journey for them and all at the same time, we don’t know where new light will go. I think it’s really up to them too. I’ve definitely said at the beginning that I didn’t want this to be like a movement where they’re like marching down the street because what they need right now is just to process, to rest, to be in community with each other and to start, in this way. And then wherever they would like to go, we will continue to follow and support them and be by their side. And hopefully my next goal of course, is to go to Cambodia one day, it’d be really great to go together and as a coalition to see how to possibly even physically build something out there,

[00:49:12] Hien: Any fun stories about your work, any highlights?

[00:49:17] Elijah: There’s so many places I have fun at CERI. I don’t know, okay. What I like to say is that when I’m with my elders, maybe it’s a CERI thing, maybe it’s a Cambodian cultural thing, but sometimes they call Kanley mom and they call me father and we are like 30 years younger than some of these elders. And they joke and they tease with us and they laugh and they’ll always say, oh, isn’t it so funny that your children are so much older than you. And it’s just so endearing and it’s so sweet. There’s so many fun moments, I love that, older uncles are asking me about my love life, you know? And not that I’m saying that this is about me, but it’s such, it’s so normalized. They accept me. I came out to them when I joined CERI, we have four elder groups, three, women identified one male identified elder groups and in four different settings, I literally had to sit on the ground, show pictures, tell them my story and cry. Of course it wasn’t forced here. It’s just I’m literally coming out to a community of folks and telling them my story. Honestly, so that some aunties would stop asking me to marry their children or their cousins or aunties in Cambodia, actually and then for two, I wanted to be my whole self and CERI is really teaching me that I can be queer, I can be an activist and some of them call me son, some of ’em call me oun or oun or kmuoy, which is niece or nephew. And so it’s such a mix of who I am, but it’s just the everyday jokes. 

[00:50:55] Nate: I do love this idea that for a people that have lost so much to genocide have lost so much to war, there’s this idea of creating family that feels so necessary. Like creating family is so necessary for the next step, the next healing step of this community. When I hear you say that the elders are calling, they’re making fun of you. They’re calling you like father, they’re calling you nephew, calling Kanley niece. They’re calling you, you know, son. I think there’s something, even though it’s playful, it still feels beautiful. It still feels necessary, right? To reclaim that our family. That the family can exist here, I think is so powerful. And I think back to the New Light program, it’s almost like you’re not recreating family, but recreating connection and community to a place where people have only known as home while they transition to new home. And I think that’s what the, what I feel as a Cambodian American is the Cambodian struggle. How do we create family and create new home against a system that has tried to break us away from families in home for so long. I think CERI doing the work, I wish my parents went to CERI. They probably still can. They probably still can go. 

[00:52:19] Elijah: I wish my family was at CERI, all of these moments it feels like family connections, because it’s like this kind of wholesome connection that you want with your family. I want to have this kind of easy kind of jovial, carefree moments with my parents too, and I do in some ways, and in many ways, because of CERI, because of the language and the mental health that I’ve honed and beginning to retain and practice, I get to have a little glimpse of that with my mom and dad. This can go outside and have reverberating impacts outside of CERI and especially in my personal life. And I was lucky enough before the pandemic to go to Cambodia. And to see both of my grandparents before they passed during the pandemic. so it was really beautiful to be able to speak enough Khmer to both of them and to my relatives out there. And they’re really proud of me and they’re proud of the work I’m doing and proud of the languages. And they’re even showing off. They’re like, oh, he’s second generation and he’s old and he’s totally American, but look, he can still speak and honestly, I’ve been, that’s my fifth time in Cambodia. Like when I was in my twenties, they were like more embarrassed to be honest. And people used to shame me all the time. So being on the other side of not feeling ashamed all the time from my language skills feels pretty good.

[00:53:44] Nate: I’m going to Cambodia at the end of the year. And I have a lot of emotions and feelings about being shamed for not being able to speak the language. It like keeps me up at night. I like practice in my sleep, my Khmer and then I stutter. And then I’m like, I’m never speaking in Cambodia ever in my life. I’m mostly gonna go visit like deportees, you know, I want to build community out there and reconnect and try to be a familiar presence for a lot of people, but still I have to try to get by and speak Khmer without having emotional breakdown in the middle of the street. Cuz I got lost somewhere.

[00:54:20] Elijah: They are speaking so much English these days, too. And to be honest, if they hear you speaking English, I bet people be like, I’m gonna practice with you, and starts just only speaking English to you. So I think it’ll just, you’ll be just fine. I think you’ll you have enough language in both ways. but I am excited for you. 

[00:54:38] Hien: I think this conversation comes at a really critical time where so much has happened really in the past couple months, we’ve seen members come home after decades of prison and be reunited with their families and not transferred to ICE and then we’ve seen members just recently a couple days ago be deported. And right now in the California legislature we’re pushing to pass a bill called the VISION act, AB 937, that would prevent ICE from picking people after they come out of prison. And these are people who are eligible for release people who have gone through the parole process, a very comprehensive and rigorous process at that, been assessed by the state of California to be eligible, to come home and reunited with their families. And this would prevent them being turned over upon their release to ICE. And I think they talk about mental health is especially important in this time, as we talk about rest, as we talk about continuing the fight, as we talk about intergenerational trauma, how trauma’s compounded that so much is going on, there’s just so much grit and so much fight that is going on. And that we also need to take care of each other and hold each other in these moments. Elijah and the work that you’re doing, makes me feel like there will be different avenues for everyone. We can’t solve everything, but there will be something for everyone when they come home. And I feel like that is important. So thank you so much for sharing about your work.

[00:56:27] Elijah: Yeah, thank you. I like what you just said, there’s something for everyone when they come home. And that’s definitely a value. I hold dear to my heart. I remember when all three of us were at a retreat in January, right before the pandemic, we came up with values and we said, freedom, family and food, and me and Kanley still say it every day to each other. Food is very emphasized , but we can’t have that without family. And we can’t have family without freedom. Those are still part of our mission and our values and with freedom, family food, everyone has a role. 

[00:57:02] Nate: Well, thank you so much, Elijah, for joining us on this segment and we appreciate all your insight. Thank you Hien for this beautiful wrap up, and if you wanna learn more look at kpfa.org or go to CERI’s website it’s Center for Empowering Refugees and Immigrants and look up the New Light program and you can learn more about the program.

[00:57:23] Hien: Please check out our [email protected] to find out more about Elijah Chhum’s work with New Light at the Center for Empowering Refugees and Immigrants. We thank you all listeners out there. Keep resisting, keep organizing, keep creating and sharing your visions with the world. Your voices are important. 

[00:57:40] Nate: APEX express is produced by Miko Lee Jeleana Keane-Lee, Preeti Mangala Shekar, Nate Tan, and Hien Nguyen tonight’s show is produced by Nate Tan and Hien Nguyen. Thanks to the team at KPFA for their support. Have a great night.


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