Mr. Lim is a Cambodian refugee, high-school teacher, and volunteer at the Cambodian Association of Illinois. In 1975, he was driven out of his home at gunpoint, alongside the rest of the nation, and forced to work the land under a communist regime led by Pol Pot and Nuon Chea now called the Khmer Rouge.
New demographic studies released Wednesday by the Khmer Rouge tribunal—a UN-backed court now gearing up to try Nuon Chea for crimes against humanity and genocide of Cham Muslims and ethnic Vietnamese—suggests that the death toll under the communist regime is slightly higher than previous estimates. Between 1.75 and 2.2 million people perished between 1975 and 1979, the Phnom Penh Post reports. Of these, between 800,000 and 1.3 million were violent deaths.
Few answers to the obvious question—Why?—have ever been found. Still, a very smart reporter for the same paper mentioned above decided to ask it anyway. Thet Sambath’s unbelievable film, Enemies of the People, opens tonight at the Gene Siskel Film Center.
In truth, I started this project several years ago. When I began then by surveying my immediate neighborhood for potential interviewees, I stumbled across a building just two blocks away that I had never noticed before, marked by elaborate and unusual stonework. The Cambodian Association of Illinois. Those of you familiar with my work in Cambodia over the past three years know that walking into it, and meeting Leon Lim, were life-changing experiences for me.
So I’m bending the rules for Leon Lim, a high-school teacher (although one could argue that Studs only ever intended to eliminate college professors from his purview of Chicagoans) and volunteer at CAI. Since I first spoke to him a few years ago, he’s done some amazing things. So, for that matter, has CAI. And Cambodia. But I can tell you about that later. First I want you to meet Mr. Lim.
Back in 1981, I volunteered to help this organization, The Cambodian Association of Illinois. Then I became the board president in 1998, when we bought this building.
He is a quiet unassuming man, thin, with dark hair and a quick smile. He dresses impeccably, a pressed button-down shirt and neat pants, and you need to lean in to hear him.
The old office is on Lawrence, too, but near Kenmore, the Uptown area—the 15-something, I forget the address. We bought this building in 1998.
The title of Studs Terkel’s book Division Street: America was always intended to be read as a metaphor for the clash of sociopolitical desires—for racial equality, for peace, for economic prosperity, for personal gain, for public good—that he then documented, in conversation with hundreds of locals, over the course of a year.
And this is, essentially, what I tell interviewees when they ask what I’m doing with Revision Street: America. Just taking note of what you want, I sometimes answer.
There is still confusion. But I don’t even live on Division Street, they remind me, gently.
Division Street is a metaphor, I repeat. And these images, of graffiti erased and repainted sometimes many times over, taken along Division Street, are a metaphor, too. (Here is the first in the series.) These images stand for the shaky prosperity of the now-ritzy neighborhood, for the shiny sheen the city puts on a city in unrest, and for your neighbors, who, all over the city, are demanding they be acknowledged.
If you know someone you think I should talk to, and they fit the project’s guidelines below, get in touch.
The 6- but almost 7-year-old West Ridge resident Katie Lizzie Drew and I had been talking about some important things—the tooth fairy and her favorite animals—before publication of the second half of her interview was delayed by the Voices from the Whittier Elementary School Field House series. But Katie Lizzie Drew, a pseudonym chosen by the Latina girl in homage to her favorite detective Nancy Drew, probably wouldn’t mind.
She’s a big fan of her own school’s library. It’s big, she says, and has lots of books. The kids get to do crafts while they wait to check out books. There is also a big rug, she describes, where kids can sit and read on their own or listen to stories.
She and her family have been following the events at Whittier closely, and thinks the field house building would be a fun place for a library. It just needs some paint and a new roof, she says.
Monica is a sweet young girl in a pink knit pancho. Her hair is tied back into a ponytail and she is shy. I’m making her speak in English for the interview. She’s comfortable in the language, clearly—but she’d be even more comfortable if we were speaking Spanish. Her mom stands off to the side, coaxing her in her native language: It’s OK, just tell her what you think. The mom doesn’t speak any English, and when I thank her for letting me talk to her daughter—unthinkingly—in my native language, someone translates. Gracias.
Compact Evelin Santos is helping the mothers in the Pilsen compound agitate for a library, which they’ve been doing now for a week and a day. Well, agitate isn’t the right word, but politely demand doesn’t sound strong enough for a nine-day occupation. And compound really isn’t the right word, either—we are, after all, in a cheerful elementary school yard, with a giant, new playground out in front. The weapons of choice are smiles and friendly greetings, and the revolutionaries shush each other if the volume of their protests threatens to interrupt their children’s education.
Next to the field house sits a container that holds overflow supplies that don’t fit into the school since the renovations were completed over the summer. These renovations are the subject of today’s post. They were a previous demand of the parents of Whittier children, and a $1.4 million budget was set aside for them. The $354,000 CPS wants to use to level la Casita and turn it into a sports field is a line item in that budget.
Mostly, life at the Whittier Bilingual Elementary School field house is pretty quiet. There’s time for gossip and food and music. And hugging. There’s an unbelievable amount of closeness at Whittier. If you are uncomfortable with people touching you warmly, holding your hand, expressing gratitude, or caring about you, for sure you will want to find a different cause to support that is not the Whittier Bilingual Elementary School Library.