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HomePhysicsBerkeley ‘refugee scholar’ Khatharya Um shares her story to empower college students

Berkeley ‘refugee scholar’ Khatharya Um shares her story to empower college students

Khatharya Um, UC Berkeley’s first feminine Cambodian American professor narrowly escaped life below the Khmer Rouge. She is pictured right here together with her father in 1990 as she would finally graduate together with her Ph.D. in political science from UC Berkeley. (Picture courtesy of Khatharya Um)

This I’m A Berkeleyan characteristic was written by Khatharya Um, affiliate professor of Ethnic Research and Chair of Peace and Battle Research on the College of California, Berkeley. Have somebody you assume we must always write about? Contact

For a lot of Southeast Asian refugees, the present violence in Afghanistan and Ukraine is like an instantaneous replay of a painful historical past that few can neglect.

If little is taught concerning the Vietnam Struggle — a misnomer, as a result of the conflict was not confined to Vietnam — even much less is thought about Cambodia and the U.S. intentional destruction of that nation to safe a supposedly honorable exit from Vietnam in April 1975. What adopted was a genocide that decimated nearly 1 / 4 of Cambodia’s inhabitants and rendered tons of of 1000’s of households and people stateless: I used to be certainly one of them.

And although it has been over 4 a long time, every little thing appears so current to us, but largely invisible to the remainder of America.

My journey

I used to be born in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital metropolis, and grew up in a really conventional Cambodian household. My father was a Cambodian ambassador to Burma, now referred to as Myanmar, and was returning to Cambodia when the nation fell to the communists in 1975.

Khatharya Um's passport

Um’s childhood passport. It grew to become ineffective when her household have been pressured out of Cambodia and have been “stateless.” (Picture courtesy of Khatharya Um)

The Burmese authorities acknowledged the brand new Cambodian authorities and threw us out of Burma. The one refuge we may discover was a refugee camp in Thailand. We later discovered that, apart from our little household, all of my aunts, uncles, cousins — all the way down to an 18-month-old child — had perished in the course of the genocide.

The world as we knew it had ceased to exist.  

I as soon as wrote concerning the rupturing results of the Cambodian genocide, and a reviewer queried: “Is that this actually rupture?” I do know no different phrase to explain this.

From the Thai refugee camp, we have been admitted to the USA and positioned in Camp Pendleton in San Diego. We had no selection the place we ended up. One aircraft took off, and it landed in California, the opposite in Pennsylvania. For refugees, nothing is for certain besides uncertainty.

It’s troublesome to think about that there are refugee camps in America. These are locations of exception.

I keep in mind searching past the hills that surrounded the camp and seeing a glimpse of automobiles driving within the far distance. And I keep in mind considering, “That’s America. That’s regular life. Folks going to work, youngsters going to high school.”

I felt very envious of them.

It wasn’t that I liked faculty, it was simply that it represented normalcy, and I wished to be like different children. We have been on American soil, however remoted, and couldn’t go away the camp with out being sponsored by somebody who might be financially and legally liable for us. Many sponsors who got here into the camps have been in search of low cost labor to work on the farms or the timberland of the West Coast. My household was one of many final to be sponsored.

Archived photo of tents used at Camp Pendleton for war refugees in 1975

Refugees at Camp Pendelton on Could 1, 1975. (Flickr picture by Jim Mosby)

The early neighborhood

The early years have been difficult as a result of, apart from some 200 college students and people in coaching applications, there was no Cambodian neighborhood within the U.S. previous to 1975 — therefore, no co-ethnic help for brand new refugees.

No matter now we have as we speak, the neighborhood organizations, temples, heritage applications, we constructed from scratch, with little sources besides our personal resourcefulness. A rundown studio grew to become a spot of worship. Self-taught refugees crafted conventional violins from Okay-mart baseball bats, as a result of music is important to Khmer weddings.

It was that inside and collective fortitude that evokes my work as we speak. I all the time assume again to that point in 1975 when some Cambodian faculty college students introduced garments and meals for us at Camp Pendleton. They made a distinction in refugee lives in ways in which they themselves didn’t even notice.

That one can profoundly affect somebody’s life by small acts stayed with me.

These early experiences taught me a terrific deal about management and mobilization that grew to become helpful afterward, after I had the chance to guide a number of the nationwide Pan-Southeast Asian organizations.

The primary technology of path finders


The United Cambodian Neighborhood constructing in Lengthy Seaside, Calif. was one of many first facilities for Cambodian refugees within the nation. (Picture courtesy of Calisphere)

Nomadism could also be a celebrated characteristic of our international age, however there’s nothing glamorous about exile. It’s inconceivable for individuals who have by no means skilled it to grasp what it means to must rebuild your complete life with only one piece of baggage and $10 in your pocket in a rustic the place every little thing is totally international, and the place you aren’t all the time welcomed.

My technology was the primary to develop up in America, so we had no reference level for something. Even the best act was a wrestle. We struggled with the English language, with instructional disruption due to the conflict and the camps. We struggled with day by day residing. It was additionally a brand new world for our mother and father, so there was nobody to assist us navigate life in America. We had no information of what it took to complete highschool, not to mention get into faculty.

In America, English is the language of energy, and with out it, you’re lower than an individual. Academics have preconceived notions of what you’re able to doing or turning into, merely since you are an English learner.

Regardless that I had stellar grades, no trainer or counselor ever spoke to me about faculty or gave me details about scholarships or monetary support. What we knew, we needed to discover out on our personal — and sometimes too late.

I keep in mind despairing on the thought that if I wished to pursue increased schooling, I might have to have the ability to put myself by faculty and in addition assist help my household. That’s lots for a teen.

Being a lady

Being the primary Cambodian American lady to finish a Ph.D. at Berkeley (1990), and later turning into Berkeley’s first Cambodian American professor, was not a simple journey.

Khatharya Um posing on campus during graduation in 1990

(Picture courtesy of Khatharya Um)

Even in my technology, not very many Cambodian girls pursued increased schooling, and nearly nobody went away to varsity as a result of girls didn’t transfer out of their mother and father’ residence till after marriage.

Once I was accepted to Berkeley, my household needed to confront the prospect of me leaving residence and residing by myself as an single younger lady. It was unprecedented for our neighborhood. It was my mom who advocated most forcefully for me. Although she was raised in a really conventional family, she firmly believed in schooling for girls.

Issues have modified since, and lots of Cambodian girls have gone off to varsity and succeeded. However wanting again, I usually joke that, in contrast to my friends, I didn’t have the posh of simply worrying about exams. I had a complete neighborhood watching and ready for the end result of the very brave choices my mother and father made.

In faculty, we encountered completely different challenges. Many values that have been instilled in us as Khmer — modesty and humility — should not essentially valued in academia. If you’re quiet about your achievements, individuals simply assume that you simply haven’t accomplished something.

Refugee earlier than all else

I didn’t select academia — it selected me.

Rising up, I by no means considered being an educational. I by no means even considered majoring in political science till very late in my undergraduate profession. I got here from a household with lengthy histories of exile. Politics had not been sort to us.

My mother and father additionally apprehensive concerning the challenges of pursuing such a significant as a newcomer to the English language.

As refugees, we all the time must be sensible.

What set me on this path was a chanced enrollment in a political science course. I learn texts about wars and revolutions in Southeast Asia that had no resonance with what we went by. Cambodia and the Cambodian individuals have been additionally utterly invisible, erased from these historical past texts.

After nearly 100 years of French colonization, scholarship on Cambodia continues to be largely written by non-Cambodians. The place are we in our personal historical past?  The place are our voices?

Book covers of texts written by Khatharya Um.

That’s after I determined that now we have to put in writing our personal historical past.

I discovered a house in ethnic research due to its mental and political funding within the histories and lived experiences which were peripheralized and erased. What I wished to provide is scholarship during which the individuals, their experiences and their voices, are recentered and foregrounded. The form of scholarship that’s not about us being studied or spoken about, however us talking for ourselves and narrating our personal tales.

It’s this paradigm shift that the Vital Refugee Research Collective that I cofounded seeks to advance.

The reward and the burden

Popping out of the genocide, time is in opposition to us.

Few survived the genocide, and I’ve but to discover a single Cambodian household that hasn’t misplaced somebody. This collective trauma informs who we’re as a neighborhood. The loss of life of nearly a complete technology — together with of artists and artisans — additionally meant cultural destruction, as a result of a lot of our custom is oral.

We’re combating in opposition to time to get better the lacking histories, to protect fading recollections, in order that we are able to bequeath them to posterity. A lot is misplaced already, and extra of that historical past is misplaced daily with the passing of the survivor technology.

That’s what consumes me daily.

However the strategy of archiving reminiscence is a troublesome one as a result of within the Khmer tradition, talking about oneself isn’t one thing that’s valorized. So, losses and ache are buried beneath the silence that hovers over the Cambodian American household, exacerbating the generational trauma.

It’s crucial that this historical past is preserved and transmitted, as a result of it permits the youthful generations to find themselves in one thing larger — in an extended family tree. It permits them to grasp that historical past that haunts them transgenerationally.

Khatharya Um speaking into a microphone

Khatharya Um talking about Cambodian refugee experiences throughout a C-SPAN look in 2006. (Picture courtesy of C-SPAN)

To be certainly one of solely three Cambodian American professors within the UC system is an actual privilege, however it’s also an enormous accountability.

There are so few of us who’ve made it by the door that now we have to make it possible for the door isn’t closed to others. Hopefully, the trail that now we have walked will be smoother for individuals who comply with.

Sadly, many younger Southeast Asian college students are nonetheless struggling to take care of systemic racism, with id, with navigating a number of worlds, expectations and obligations. Solely 14% of Cambodian People have a university diploma. A big a part of that wrestle is making sense of the historical past that continues to weigh on them, however that’s largely unacknowledged.

That’s the reason the Southeast Asian Scholar Coalition (SASC) was shaped. It was a much-needed area for college kids from completely different ethnicities — Cambodian, Hmong, Vietnamese, Laos — to rise above their fraught histories, come collectively in recognition of their shared experiences, and forge new types of solidarity.

The SASC Summer time Institute that the group created can also be an essential pipeline for Southeast Asian highschool college students, whose struggles are obscured by the mannequin minority fantasy. We hope to increase that area to incorporate new refugee college students.

Engaged scholarship

I see my analysis, educating and neighborhood work as an extension of one another.

In mentoring college students, I’m not merely educating them tips on how to do good analysis or to assume and write analytically. I’m looking for to empower them to imagine in themselves, to valorize their Southeast Asian heritage, to imagine within the significance of researching and preserving the tales which were bequeathed to them.

Um’s former ethnic research pupil Elijah Chhum, final 12 months, recounts his personal mom’s story almost 40 years after surviving the Khmer Genocide and resettling in Rochester, Minn.

This helps reaffirm their sense of self, their values, their identities as Southeast Asians, as refugees, and in addition their sense of loss. That has to first be acknowledged earlier than it may be reconciled.

Once I first entered academia, Southeast Asian issues have been nearly absent within the curriculum, even in Asian American research. Even Cal was an intellectually lonely place to be. What now we have constructed through the years was not only a discipline of examine. We now have constructed an mental and a political residence for our college students.

What college students uncover by our lessons are hidden tales, hidden valor and unrecognized fortitude. These they carry with them on the remainder of their journey. In recovering our historical past, we get better ourselves.

And in reclaiming our previous, we reclaim our sense of futurity. I feel that’s the best legacy that anybody or any establishment can impart.

That’s the true which means of schooling.



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