“It is a miracle to simply exist”

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At our recent Community Conversations event in Philadelphia, I had the pleasure of meeting Pete Pin, a Cambodian-American documentary photographer. Pete and I sat down to talk about the question of identity in the Cambodian-American community and his own personal experience with living out the label “Cambodian-American”.
Pete was born in 1982 in a refugee camp after his parents fled the Killing Fields . Today he is photographing his people, their communities, and in the process learning about their history and identity.

Pete’s work has been recently featured on TIME magazines LightBox website, where Pete writes:

The Cambodian people are among the most heavily traumatized people in modern memory. They are the human aftermath of a cultural, political, and economic revolution by the Khmer Rouge that killed an estimated two million, nearly a third of the entire population, within a span of four years from 1975-1979. The entire backbone of society—educated professionals, artists, musicians and monks—were systematically executed in a brutal attempt to transform the entirety of Cambodian society to a classless rural collective of peasants. That tragedy casts a long shadow on the lives of Cambodians. It bleeds generationally, manifesting itself subtly within my own family in ways that I am only starting to fully comprehend as an adult. It is ingrained in the sorrow of my grandmother’s eyes; it is sown in the furrows of my parents’ faces. This is my inheritance; this is what it means to be Cambodian.

After surviving the Killing Fields, my family, along with hundreds of thousands of survivors, risked their lives trekking through the Khmer-Rouge-controlled jungle to reach a refugee camp in Thailand. There, my mother had what she believes to be a prophetic dream. In a field, an entire city’s worth of women were clawing with their bare hands in bloodstained dirt searching for an elusive diamond. To the disbelief of everyone in the dream, she serendipitously stumbled upon it wrapped in a blanket of dirt. The following day she discovered she was pregnant with me. The significance of this didn’t dawn on me until I started photographing this project. It was a vision of hope and renewal, that we as Cambodians are endowed with an incredible resilience and strength in human spirit. I have seen this in the faces of Cambodians I have photographed and have been incredibly humbled. In the words of my mother, it is a miracle to simply exist.

As a result of the unique demographic circumstances of the genocide, there has been a paucity of reflection within the Cambodian community. Many second-generation Cambodians I have interviewed learned about the Killing Fields through secondary sources, from the Internet and documentary films. Such conversations were non-existent at home. Exacerbating the silence is an inter-generational language barrier; most young Cambodian Americans cannot speak Khmer, the Cambodian language, while their parents and grandparents are incapable of speaking English. As a result, we are the literal manifestation of Pol Pot’s attempt to erase Cambodia’s history and culture. However, in spite of this void, there exists a growing movement of young and empowered Cambodians—academics, artists, musicians, and activists—who are trying to bridge this generational chasm.

Pete’s work gives us a window into what the refugee experience is like decades after families arrive in the US. After the initial resettlement, after the immediate needs are met, there are still many unanswered questions and tragic shadows that can haunt people who have been uprooted by violence.

It can be satisfying to focus only on what is a tangible need, because those we can document, advocate for, and meet. LIRS has always sought to serve refugees when they arrive by aiming to meet immediate needs like well-furnished apartments, ESL training, and employment services in order to set them up for success in America. But we have always known that holistic care is the true goal. The difficulty comes in finding a role for a large national organization to play in the healing process that occurs beneath the surface or under a shroud of silence.

As we move into our 75th year of service, we have made a decision that instead of simply celebrating our past achievements, (yeah we’re still going to throw a party or two, there is much to celebrate!) we really want to look deeper into the refugee experience, asking hard questions about the inner intricacies of welcome, including what it takes to heal a community that has suffered such collective trauma. We want to know how to position LIRS so that we are a part of the community, working in tandem with others to provide holistic care where there was previously one-way service. We want to know how we can help weave the fabric of community. We want to know how we can help create the conditions for a more robust welcome. Efforts like those Pete has embarked upon help us understand better what it will take to fully care for refugee communities, in partnership with those communities, listening to them and learning from them.

We invite you to join LIRS and others like Pete who are wrestling with these difficult questions. Join the conversation. Visit LIRScc.org for more information.

More of Pete Pin’s work can be found on his website http://www.petepin.com/

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