Leaving Cambodia

November 13, 2012

Rick Kogan

Most of the Cambodians in Chicago came here as refugees in the years following 1975, when the brutal Khmer Rouge regime seized control of Cambodia. In that country, there began a four-year reign of terror in which millions of Cambodians were killed.

Peter Jennings once told me about that place, “So much suffering. Such a tortured history…”

He also said, ``The Khmer Rouge are the most genocidal people on the face of the earth. These people are maniacs.”

And so the people came here. With limited education, most Cambodian refugees sought jobs in factories, crafts and blue-collar service jobs. English as a second language and other educational programs helped Cambodians adjust to American life—but poverty remained a major problem, with 49 percent of Cambodians here living beneath the poverty line at the end of the 1990s.

There are only 5,000-some Cambodians in Chicago now and yet they—all of us—have a most amazing museum. Opened in 2004 and located at 2831 W. Lawrence Ave., the Cambodian American Heritage Museum is an example of how ambition, hope and perseverance can result in a miracle.

It took nearly three decades for this place to become a reality, but the efforts have been worth it. The museum's centerpiece is a gathering of 80 glass walls of varying heights that constitute the Killing Fields Memorial. Each holds names, etched into the glass are the names of Illinois Cambodians' relatives who died during the nightmarish regime of the Khmer Rouge.

It is estimated that as many as 3 million people perished as a result of starvation, torture or execution in a country that has yet to fully recover.

The glass panels comprise the first such memorial in the U.S. and, like the "The Wall," as the National Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. is commonly called, it is emotionally overwhelming in its simple presentation, which includes a stone column with the words "We continue our journey with compassion, understanding and wisdom."

It shouldn't be surprising that nearly 70 percent of the $1.5 million raised for the project came from our Jewish community, which knows a great deal about inhumanity and horror and losing loved ones.

Leon Lim, the chairman of the museum, calls the museum "A place to educate, to heal and to celebrate."

He looks at names etched into one of the glass walls. On the top row on the right are the names of nearly two dozen of his own relatives and friends. Though the Killing Fields Memorial, and some related exhibits, evoke deadly times, there is life aplenty in the museum in the form of literacy classes, cultural programs, language classes and other building blocks for a hopeful future in this foreign land.