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Essay: A Tangled Path from Khmer Rouge Refugee to Community Healer

Imagine for a moment your childhood memories included living in a bomb shelter for years, watching your 2-year-old sister die in your arms.Imagine being separated from your parents and put in a children’s camp where there was little food and water, and where you were forced to work long hours in the sun.

Imagine spending nights sleeping on a hard bamboo bed with bed bugs and no pillow or blanket in a one-room house with no walls.

Imagine that at the age of 10 you have to run for your life through the jungle, dodging bullets and mines daily and sleeping wherever, eating and drinking anything just to get basic nourishment, sometimes even having to drink water from a pond with dead bodies floating in it.

These childhood memories are not fiction but my own true story as a refugee.

Surviving the war; surviving after the war

I was born in Cambodia during the Vietnam War. A four-year-long carpet-bombing campaign in the skies of Cambodia devastated the country and eventually led to the installation of the Khmer Rouge regime. The war took away my childhood and killed about half a million people and displaced a few million others. The Khmer Rouge starved and killed about 1.7 million people, approximately 21 percent of Cambodia’s entire population.

At just 8 years old I was given the responsibility of taking care of my 2-year-old sister while my parents were sent away to work in their labor camp. My sister got very sick. We had no access to medical care, and she died in my arms. I was so devastated I couldn’t even cry.

After my sister died, I was taken away against my will to a children’s labor camp with hundreds of other children and forced to work long hours with little food and water. The living conditions were so bad that the entire camp was infested with bed bugs, body bugs, and head lice. With no shoes or proper clothing, my body and feet were infected with wounds, and I was unable to see my parents. Sometimes I took huge risks and snuck out of the camp at night, walking miles just to be able to see my mom for a few hours.

The journey of a refugee

When the Vietcong invaded Cambodia in 1979, war broke out again. That’s when my family decided our best chance of surviving was to flee the country. My dad came for me and my other siblings, and we risked our lives crossing the country by foot, running through battle zones, dodging bullets, bombs, and hidden landmines, and trekking through the dense jungles of Cambodia with little food or water. I witnessed hundreds of people die along that traumatic journey. Many people were left behind to die, because we were too weak to carry the loved ones who were too weak to walk.

When we reached the Thailand border, we were stuck there and had to survive by eating whatever fruits or animals we could find. Many people died of starvation, malaria, and other infectious diseases. By the time the UN and other organizations came to rescue us, about half the people living around me had died. Many more continued to die in the crowded refugee camp.

Eventually life got better in the refugee camp. We were given basic food, shelter, clothing, medicine, the freedom to play and make friends, and I finally had the chance to attend school — for the first time — at age 11. I absorbed everything like a sponge, so quickly that I was able to read and write half-way through my first grade. Reading to other children gave me so much joy. At 16, after a few years of high school, I finished my nursing certificate program and was able to help take care of other refugees, which brought me tremendous fulfillment and happiness.

After spending eight years in refugee camps, my family of eight was accepted to the United States. We were settled first in a studio apartment in South Philadelphia and then to a three-bedroom house. At 19, I had to be working right away, but because I had such a desire for education, I decided to attend South Philadelphia High School during the day and work in a chicken factory at night to help support my family. With the help of some wonderful teachers, counselors, and my principal, within two years I was able to graduate with honors and get accepted to the Community College of Philadelphia. I soon started my first job as an interpreter and medical clerk at three Philadelphia Health Center locations.

Becoming an asset to the community

Within 10 years, I was able to earn a college degree, begin a rewarding career, get married, give birth to two beautiful children, and purchase my first home. While working at the Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia, I was able to help many refugees and immigrants who had been through difficult times like I had. Community members and other stakeholders turned to me for assistance in dealing with complex issues such as runaway children, conflict mediation, and responses to crises in the community. With good connections locally and nationally, I was able to identify and speak on various issues at local, state, and federal levels, and I developed many impactful programs and services for of all ages. I felt like I was on top of the world and truly living the American Dream.

But then the financial crisis hit in 2008. In the next few years many foundations were forced to either cut or freeze their funding to nonprofits, and reimbursements from government agencies were delayed by five or six months. I kept fighting for resources that too often were taken away. I saw the important work of grassroots organizations like the Cambodian Association consistently undervalued. I was forced to cut my employees’ salaries by 50 percent across the board. I cut my own by 75 percent.

At the same time, I was going through a terrible divorce, losing my house, and going broke. It was among the most difficult periods of my life, and I almost reached a breaking point.

I wasn’t comfortable seeking professional help, because I was afraid of being judged. With the help of an elder from my community, I was able to get in touch with my spiritual side and learn Vipassana meditation techniques that remedied my pains — through seeing things as they really are at the moment, understanding what causes misery, and gaining insight into the universal law of impermanence.

Paying it forward

With the support of family and countless others, I survived that difficult period and came out stronger than before. The Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disability Services made miracles happen, releasing emergency funds to help us meet payroll and keep the organization going. Foundations and corporations supported our work helping thousands of people in need in our area. After 14 years, I left the Cambodian Association in 2014 as its executive director having restored 76 percent of our revenue and helping more people than ever before.

I realized I needed to pause and take care of myself, so I returned to Cambodia and traveled in other countries in Southeast Asia. In Cambodia I volunteered at a crisis center, helping battered women and victims of sex and human trafficking get help and find hope. That journey, helping other less fortunate than I am, and reconnecting with my homeland, helped me heal in many ways. I was able to accept the traumatic experiences I had as a child and a refugee as important parts of my story that make me who I am today.

I am stronger, happier, and wiser, and very hopeful that I can help many others who have had similar experiences and struggles and ultimately make our community and world a stronger, healthier, and much better place.

I am the true embodiment of the American dream and my story can give hope to anyone coming to this country that absolutely anything is possible here.

Sarorng “Rorng” Sorn is the Director of Immigrant Affairs and Language Access Services at Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual DisAbility Services (BHIDS). The above essay is adapted from her remarks at the Faith and Spiritual Affairs 10th annual conference, New Americans: Healing and Resilience, on April 11.

10th Annual FBI-Strawberry Mansion Softball Game

Strawberry Mansion community members and the Philadelphia division of the FBI sat side by side on Tuesday, August 30, tying their cleats for the 10th annual “Step Up to the Plate: Strike Out Violence” softball game.

Derrick Ford, a social worker from Strawberry Mansion and one of the organizers for the event explained that the game wasn’t about winning, but about bringing the community together.

Strawberry Mansion All-Star Baseball League huddles together before hitting the field on Tuesday, August 30, 2016./Kaitlyn Moore

Strawberry Mansion All-Star Baseball League huddles together before hitting the field on Tuesday, August 30, 2016./Kaitlyn Moore

“The media perpetuates what is happening with the multitude of cops killing african american kids. And we are trying to the kill the stigma of how these inner-city kids view law enforcement.”

Families and children lined the field, looking on as their coaches, parents, and family friends played with members of the FBI.

Jahmarr Gardner, right, and Naji Reid Lawrence Lewis look on during the softball game in support of their friend Alex, the pitcher on Strawberry Mansion’s team./Kaitlyn Moore

Jahmarr Gardner, right, and Naji Reid Lawrence Lewis look on during the softball game in support of their friend Alex, the pitcher on Strawberry Mansion’s team./Kaitlyn Moore

“Its an opportunity for kids to be up close and personal with law enforcement, and realize it’s okay to be an officer,” Ford explained.

The crowd grew heated, cheering and laughing as the plays became more intense. The FBI ended up taking the win 18-11, but Special Agent Bill Sweeney remarked, “If you ask me, it was a win-win on both sides.”

Strawberry Mansion teammate, Brandon Mundy looks on at his hit during the 10th annual Step Up to the Plate: Strike Out Violence softball game. /Kaitlyn Moore

Strawberry Mansion teammate, Brandon Mundy looks on at his hit during the 10th annual Step Up to the Plate: Strike Out Violence softball game. /Kaitlyn Moore

After the game, the two teams lined to shake hands and pose for a photo to commemorate the day. A teammate from the FBI, Daron said, “They get to interact with us and see a different side of us. And sometimes in the job we lose sight of the human aspect of the people we investigate. This helps shed light on that.”

Strawberry Mansion teammate, Ebony Williams, right, shares a laugh with FBI catcher during the 10th annual Step Up to the Plate: Strike Out Violence softball game. /Kaitlyn Moore

Strawberry Mansion teammate, Ebony Williams, right, shares a laugh with FBI catcher during the 10th annual Step Up to the Plate: Strike Out Violence softball game. /Kaitlyn Moore

Tonetta Graham, steps up to plate in support of Strawberry Mansion on August 30, 2016./Kaitlyn Moore

Tonetta Graham, steps up to plate in support of Strawberry Mansion on August 30, 2016./Kaitlyn Moore

Philadelphia Division of the FBI player, Janelle Miller, makes a catch during the 10th annual Step Up to the Plate: Strike Out Violence softball game. /Kaitlyn Moore

Philadelphia Division of the FBI player, Janelle Miller, makes a catch during the 10th annual Step Up to the Plate: Strike Out Violence softball game. /Kaitlyn Moore

FBI player, Daron, runs for third base during the 10th annual Step Up to the Plate: Strike Out Violence softball game. /Kaitlyn Moore

FBI player, Daron, runs for third base during the 10th annual Step Up to the Plate: Strike Out Violence softball game. /Kaitlyn Moore

Brandon Mundy makes it safely to third base during the 10th annual Step Up to the Plate: Strike Out Violence softball game. /Kaitlyn Moore

Brandon Mundy makes it safely to third base during the 10th annual Step Up to the Plate: Strike Out Violence softball game. /Kaitlyn Moore

Tonetta Graham enjoys the 10th annual Step Up to the Plate: Strike Out Violence softball game./Kaitlyn Moore

Tonetta Graham enjoys the 10th annual Step Up to the Plate: Strike Out Violence softball game./Kaitlyn Moore

Umpire and FBI team player share a moment after the game on August 30, 2016./Kaitlyn Moore

Umpire and FBI team player share a moment after the game on August 30, 2016./Kaitlyn Moore

Organizers, players, family members, and both teams pose for a photo after an afternoon of baseball at the 10th annual Step Up to the Plate: Strike Out Violence softball game. /Kaitlyn Moore

Organizers, players, family members, and both teams pose for a photo after an afternoon of baseball at the 10th annual Step Up to the Plate: Strike Out Violence softball game. /Kaitlyn Moore

Get Creative With Mural Arts!

Join in and paint a project designed by Eric Okdeh in conjunction with participants in workshops at the Kirkbride Center.

The mural describes the process of acknowledging, accepting, and overcoming the hardships and struggles that occur in all our lives, ending in the warm embrace of community. We’re also happy to welcome various community health and wellness organizations who will be tabling and sharing resources with attendees.

This event is free and open to the public of all ages.

Nominations Sought for Points of Transformation Awards

Nominations are now being accepted for the 16th annual Points of Transformation Awards to be held on Thursday, Sept. 29, 2016. We welcome nominations of those direct service professionals who have committed their careers to supporting people with intellectual disabilities and exemplify the Philadelphia Intellectual disAbility Services motto, “It’s all about community!” Consider the people you work with who are models of excellence, compassion, commitment, growth, and achievement.

To nominate an individual, simply fill out the nomination form and submit it to the address listed below. All nominations must be received by Friday, Aug. 12, 2016. No extensions will be given.

There will be one winner in each of the following categories:

  • Residential: A person who is meets the individual needs of each resident and makes sure safe, healthy choices are provided to attain an “everyday life” in meaningful experiences and loving relationships.
  • Employment: A person who assists in matching an individual with a job position that provides fair pay, benefits, positive relationships with co-workers and provisions for a rewarding environment.
  • Life Sharing: A person or family who provides a loving home and environment that opens opportunities for life and loving family experiences.
  • Support/Service Coordination This person helps identify, locate coordinate and monitor community and system supports of highest possible quality while respecting each person’s right to privacy and personal autonomy.
  • Early Intervention: This individual works with families in meeting the developmental needs of their children by assisting them in use of community services, supports and addressing their concerns.
  • Treatment Staff: This is a health care professional (nurse, behavior therapist, occupational therapist, physical therapist, nutritionist) who works with individuals and staff around first aid, healthy foods, weight loss, diabetes care, exercise, or behavioral triggers.
  • Habilitation: A direct staff professional who supports and works with an individual in day community settings.
  • Kathy Sykes “It’s all about community!” Award: This person exemplifies our mission to create, promote and enhance the supports and services available to individuals with intellectual disabilities.

Please return completed nominations to:

Wendy Williams, MSW
Public Awareness Coordinator
701 Market Street, Suite 5200
Philadelphia, PA 19106

For further information, please contact Wendy Williams at wendy.williams@phila.gov or 215-685-4680.

Community

Community

Community Engagement

Community Engagement

Community Coalition Wellness Initiative (CCWI)

Community Coalition Wellness Initiative (CCWI)

Drug Free Coalitions

Drug Free Coalitions

Mural Arts/Porch Light Program

Mural Arts/Porch Light Program