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Cambodian Immigrants in US Struggle With Mental Health

Jennifer Ka works as a volunteer protecting enviornment in Cambodia. (Courtesy of Jennifer Ka)
Jennifer Ka works as a volunteer protecting enviornment in Cambodia. (Courtesy of Jennifer Ka)
Cambodian Immigrants to U.S. Struggle with Mental Health
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Some people think their problems will be solved if they just leave home and move far away, perhaps to another country. Yet resettling in a new country is not always easy.

Take a look at the thousands of people who left Cambodia from the 1970s to the 1990s. Many of them came to the United States to escape from the Khmer Rouge, which ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. Up to two million Cambodians are estimated to have died during that period.

Mary Scully is a healthcare worker in the U.S. state of Connecticut. She has spent over 35 years working with Cambodians, both in refugee camps and in Connecticut. She now directs a mental health organization called Khmer Health Advocates.

Mary Scully talks to health advocates for the Southeast Asian community. (Courtesy Mary Scully)
Mary Scully talks to health advocates for the Southeast Asian community. (Courtesy Mary Scully)

Scully says 60 percent of the Cambodian refugees she worked with who became parents in the U.S. struggled with mental health problems. This prevented them from having good relationships with their children.

"If they have flashbacks, if they get anxious, then they go from being connected to being disconnected with their kids, which is very confusing for the child,” she said.

Jennifer Ka grew up in the United States. Her parents left Cambodia to escape the Khmer Rouge. She says she could never understand why her father always seemed angry.

“He was really never there and present with us because he was stuck in his trauma; he never told me what happened to him in the Khmer Rouge,” Ka said.

Her parents had trouble earning money after they arrived in the U.S. There were few good job training programs for refugees.

Many refugees received financial assistance from the government. However, much of that support ended when the U.S. made changes in the government’s welfare program in 1996. The changes ended much of the federal aid available for immigrants and refugees.

Mary Scully says the Cambodian refugees she met suffered from feelings of anxiety and depression. They also had headaches and bad dreams.

Other health problems, like diabetes, also came up in her research. Cambodian-Americans have two times the rate of type 2 diabetes compared with the total U.S. population.

While health care workers knew what kind of problems the refugees had, they were unable to do enough to help.

Scully says she thinks Cambodian refugees in the U.S. are “suffering in silence.”

Eric Tang teaches at the University of Texas. He says he thinks the U.S. government did not do a good job of helping Cambodian refugees settle and thrive in the United States.

There is a big difference between coming to the U.S. as a refugee and becoming a U.S. resident. Tang says the long-term support many people needed just was not available.

“The resettlement policy doesn't pay attention to, for instance, job training," he says. "[It didn't] allow people to heal from their trauma before we push them into sweatshop jobs."

The problems continued for the children of refugees. Born to parents who struggled to establish themselves in the U.S., they also had trouble following through with their schooling and finding good jobs and housing.

Tang says “Some do not go to college, and many are profiled, targeted by the criminal justice system, and subjected to deportation to Cambodia."

Jennifer Ka says she found a way to deal with some of her problems. During her childhood in the U.S., she was always worried about her father. She says she thought he did not like her.

It was not until she was an adult and made a trip to Cambodia that she started to understand why her father’s life was so difficult.

“I started to deeply understand the pain my parents suffered from the genocide that I was not aware of before,” she says.

Now she feels at home in Cambodia.

I’m Dan Friedell.

Ten Soksreinith of VOA’s Khmer Service wrote this report. Dan Friedell adapted the story for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

Do you know Cambodian refugees who lived in the United States? What do you know about their experiences? We want to know. Write to us in the Comments Section or on our Facebook page.


Words in This Story

thrive – v. to grow or develop successfully : to flourish or succeed

profile – v. to give a brief description that provides information about

welfare – n. a government program for poor or unemployed people that helps pay for their food, housing, medical costs, etc.

flashback – n. a strong memory of a past event that comes suddenly into a person's mind

anxious – adj. afraid or nervous especially about what may happen : feeling anxiety

trauma – n. a very difficult or unpleasant experience that causes someone to have mental or emotional problems usually for a long time

sweatshop – n. a place where people work long hours for low pay in poor conditions