Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for being here. I am honored to be invited to speak and join in the celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Cambodian Association of Illinois. Thank you to members, board members, and committees of the Cambodian Association of Illinois and the Cambodian Women’s Network for working hard and dedicating your services to keeping the community connected and strong.
We are here tonight to celebrate the founding of the Cambodian Association of Illinois (CAI), to celebrate our flourishing community, to honor the founders, the people who manage and maintain the CAI, and those who selflessly volunteer their time and money to keeping this place running for us, our children, grandchildren, and new refugees who are in need of humanitarian services.
We certainly have come a long way as a people—a people who experienced war, separation, and trauma. We came to resettle in our new homeland during different stages of Cambodia’s politics: pre-civil war, during the civil war, and for the majority of us, when our country went through another stage of war—the fighting between the Pol Pot Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese-backed Khmer Rouge; and now we have new Cambodians who came here by marriage, sponsorship, school and work. Thanks to the Cambodian Association of Illinois, all of us have a place to network, connect, and seek help in adjusting to our new homeland and assimilating to mainstream America, which consists of diverse and wonderful groups of people.
My name is Sambath Meas. I am known to my parents, relatives and family’s friends as Sros. I was born in Pailin where my father met my mother. My mother loved reading Khmer novels when she was pregnant with me. That could be one of the reasons why I love reading and want to become a successful writer.
My family migrated to Chicago on a cold September evening in 1981, after having escaped the Cambodian–Vietnamese war and having been displaced in the refugee camps in Thailand for two years. I was eight years old when we arrived. I grew up in Uptown, Chicago, which passersby saw as dilapidated and littered with garbage and graffiti. They call it a ghetto and Crime City, but we called it home. Uptown saw Native-Americans, African-Americans, Hispanics, Caucasians (who were left over from white-flight), veterans, handicapped, gangs and new immigrants from Southeast Asia (specifically Cambodians, Laotians, and Vietnamese) and Eastern European refugees who escaped their war-torn countries, living side by side.
After my family settled in for a year or two, I noticed more Cambodian refugees started pouring into many parts of Uptown: Argyle, Beacon, Lawrence, Leland, Malden, Sunnyside, Wilson, and so on.
I remember feeling displaced and disconnected from mainstream America, as those who came before us taunted, harassed, and committed violence against us. Other Cambodian refugees must have felt that too, as we concentrated in certain blocks of Uptown for that feeling of familiarity. As a young girl, I had no idea the Cambodian Association of Illinois had been founded since 1976. All I knew was that it became the center of Cambodians’ lives. The majority of us go to the CAI to seek help in applying for health and financial support until we can land on our feet, seeking help to fill out job applications, and taking citizenship tests. We look forward to its hosting of the Khmer New Year’s celebration. CAI has become a centralized place to find information on Bon Pchum Ben, funeral ceremonies of our fellow Cambodians, and any other activities to maintain our tradition and culture; and to meeting where we catch up with one another.
I remember, in 1984, when my relative, ta Chea, passed away from liver cancer, cars—all types of cars—as far as my eyes could see, lined up in procession driving from the funeral home on Sheridan all the way to Graceland Cemetery on Clark. That funeral came to symbolize a celebration of life rather than a grief-stricken moment of my family’s lives. It was members of the Cambodian Association of Illinois who helped with the arrangement. Community and religious leaders attended ta Chea’s funeral. Our relatives from other states also came. I recalled seeing monks, nuns, and a pastor from outside of the Cambodian community attend the funeral and offer chants and prayers. What a great moment. I had never seen anything like it. I felt so proud and so happy to see how unified we were as a people, who had suffered so much under leaders of Cambodia who mostly looked out for their personal interests and left us to die a violent death, to starve, to be tortured, to be separated from our loved ones, to be shattered, and to be emotionally and psychologically scarred forever. Since I was aware of my surroundings, since the age of five, all I saw was our people running, dodging bombs, bullets, landmines, and depending on the kindness and mercy of other people for survival. Unfortunately, the scars will always be there for the older generation.
However, at that moment, ta Chea, a French colonial soldier turned Republican soldier, received his sendoff fit for a king. Thanks to members of the Cambodian Association of Illinois at that time for helping with the arrangement and for pulling people together to make me, an eleven-year-old girl, see, whether intentionally or not, that we are a resilient people. When we are united and follow our will—just like our will to survive the Khmer Rouge and our will to dodge bombs, bullets, and human predators to get to where we are today—we can make anything happen.
It takes special and strong-willed people to escape the effects of the Vietnam War, the Cambodian Civil War, the Khmer Rouge regime, the brutality of the refugee camps in Thailand, and the mean streets of Uptown, Chicago, and to thrive. Many of us have established our American dreams of owning our own homes, fancy cars, and sending our children to schools, even Ivy League schools. We have dispersed all over the suburbs of Illinois while others have moved on to other states or other countries where they have found great opportunities for themselves and their families.
My father, like your parents, had a dream of surviving and providing for his family. It is his dream to survive that paves the way for me to live my life to the fullest and strive for something greater than myself. It’s my desire to help other people, whether in the United States or outside of the United States, to achieve their own purpose in life.
Look at yourselves, look at your families, and look at how far we have come as a people. Now that we are here, where do we go next? We are fortunate to live in the greatest country on earth where opportunities abound, if we open our minds to receive them. There are no dreams too big for us to reach. As the saying goes, we think big in America. So why not think about expanding the Cambodian Association, expanding our community, and seek out the entrepreneurship in us to establish Cambodian Town and create jobs for Chicago, the city that took us in and provided us with its social services, education, and jobs to sustain ourselves.
Recently I have had the opportunity of speaking with random individuals within the community, especially the younger generation. Their common courtesy, good manners, gratitude and thirst for knowledge and connection have given me hope for our future. These are the qualities that stick with us and take us far in life. In my one-on-one conversation with bang Roni Washington, for example, she reminded me how all of us have diverse knowledge, skills, and experiences, and that it would be great if we could use them to help and elevate each other. She was right. When we elevate other people, we elevate ourselves. I also had a one-on-one conversation with Randy Kim, who feels extremely grateful for being accepted and not judged by members of the Cambodian Association of Illinois. He praises CAI’s inclusivity. I also saw this inclusiveness at play when I attended Home Care Training by Ms. Kaoru Watanabe. She showed me how we can serve our community by assisting our aging elders who are not our parents to live productive and dignified lives.
The gift of knowledge, of love, of teaching and sharing is what makes us great. It’s our generosity, not necessarily monetary, that enriches our community. Let’s continue this great tradition. Thank you and have a great night.