Healing Decades of Trauma Through Oral History

Three Cambodian women sit on a couch in front of a cameraman.

During the mid-1970’s, the radical Cambodian Khmer Rouge killed nearly one-fourth of the entire Cambodian population through executions, torture, starvation, disease and exhaustion. The regime sought a nation completely exempt from Western influences such as education, religion, and city life. As a result, 1.7 million Cambodians lost their lives.

Many Cambodians escaped the war, and settled in Oregon and Southwest Washington in the early 1980s as refugees. Even after thirty years, many Cambodians are still traumatized from their experiences, and are still unable to speak about them. As Cal State Long Beach sociology professor Leakhena Nou pointed out in Street Roots Magazine, the long term stress of this trauma can linger for decades, manifesting in diabetes, stroke, drug addiction, alcoholism, and family violence. “When you cut yourself deeply, a scar remains. That’s how I see the state of mind for the Cambodians.”

By 2010, there were as many as 10,000 Cambodian-Americans living in Oregon and southwest Washington.

Funded in part by a $50,000 Kaiser Permanente Community Fund grant, the Cambodian American Community of Oregon (CACO), began a unique and creative project to help Cambodian-Americans begin to heal.

The Cambodian Oral History Project had young Cambodian-Americans interview their parents and grandparents about their lives, without shying away from the brutal and repressive years under the Khmer Rouge. Eventually the interviews would be compiled into a 35-minute documentary film, and screened for public viewing encouraging community members to speak out in order to heal.

“By having the youth understand their parents and grandparents history, they will hopefully appreciate the freedom and liberty they have; and take the opportunity to educate others about the effects of genocide,” said co-director of the project, Mardine Mao, “Similar to the Holocaust survivors, Cambodian-Americans have a culture of silence when it comes to sharing their story of the genocide.”

20 adults and 19 youth, age ranging from 13-75, volunteered to participate in the interviews. Interviewers were given formal training with a two-session oral history workshop. Interviews and recording were spread out over a two month period.

Many of the youth felt that the interview process brought them closer to their elders than before speaking about the traumatic experiences in Cambodia.

“I already think of my mother as wonder woman and my hero, but with this project it just makes me think even more of her, if that was even possible,” said Kimberly Im, who interviewed her mother with her sister as part of the project, “Learning about her struggles and her life story makes me put things into perspective.”

"She feared for her life, her family’s life. She had no food to eat, no safety, nothing. The experience robbed her and her other commmunity members of that. She lost her childhood and the innocence that I got to have freely and without struggles,” said Im.

The documentary has had viewings in over 15 venues, including high schools, universities, nonprofit and community-based organizations. CACO hopes to pursue a screening on public television.

“Being a part of this project opened my eyes. It made me more compassionate and aware. I am closer to my mother after this,” said Im.