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September 11, 2001: The Response of Cambodian-Americans

Pchum Ben ceremony, Chicago, Sept. 2001 Many years of involvement in the Cambodian community have left me with preconceived notions about the relationship between refugees and immigrants, and those of us who have lived in America for all our lives. One of those notions is condescending, and not necessarily accurate: I conceive of Americans, helping Cambodians.

On September 23, 2001, Cambodians in Chicago celebrated Pchum Ben at Truman College. This year, coming less than two weeks after the attacks which claimed thousands of American lives, the atmosphere was different. There were American flags everywhere: on shirts, on walls, on car windows, on antennas.

Toward the end of the ceremony, volunteers began to walk through the crowd. They carried small cardboard boxes, with American flags printed on the sides, ready to accept donations for the victims of the attacks in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania.

The response was instantaneous. Within seconds there were people crowded around every one of the volunteers. Within minutes the boxes were overflowing with currency. I was seeing something that I had never expected to see: Cambodians, rushing to the aid of American victims of war.

Few people on Earth understand war and suffering as well as the Cambodians. In the face of insurmountable odds, they have preserved their culture. Now, the strength and resilience that withstood the Khmer Rouge forms another individual thread, woven into the fabric of America. With every new thread, the fabric grows stronger.

 

Memorial ceremony, Chicago

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