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. In 2000, we launched a campaign called Hope and Renewal Campaign to raise $1.4 million to renovate this building and to build the first Killing Fields memorial in the US. In 2002, we raised about $1.2 million—our goal was $1.4 but we raised only $1.2. The construction began in 2002 and then finished in 2004.
This building is relatively new. That side on the east side there, that’s the old building. This side that we’re sitting on, it was an empty spot. Just an empty lot. It’s a brand-new building. We bridged between the new and the old. You can’t tell.
We are in the second floor of the CAI building, neat office spaces that overlook the Chicago river and sit above the Killing Fields memorial, a reflective, pretty space on the first floor, right on Lawrence Avenue.
We opened the new museum in 2004. I am now a chairman of the museum. I’m just a volunteer here. I have a full-time job, too. My professional work is, I’m a teacher. I teach in the Chicago Public Schools. I teach at Northside College Prep High School.
This organization was established in 1975 to respond to the needs of the influx of Cambodian refugees to America, especially to Chicago. Actually, Chicago is not the most popular destination for Cambodian refugees. California is the most popular one. But the Cambodian community here is quite successful, let me put it that way. Compared to other states, the number of Cambodians in Illinois is not a lot, it is like number ten.
We organize two, actually three major events in the community. We organize a New Years Event in April, and we organize an anniversary of the organization, and also the Cambodia Buddhist Temple organizes a couple major religious events, too. Also we have special events that happen in this building from time to time, where you can get a taste of the food, the language, the culture. It’s not only Cambodian refugees, it could be all community involved in those events.
My question is never answered directly, but I ask Mr. Lim: Why are events an important part of the Cambodian community in Chicago?
As you know, the Khmer Rouge took over the capital city in 1975—on April 17, 1975, to be exact. Without talking about the war before that. I’m sure you’re aware of that, right? The Khmer Rouge took over, on April 17, 1975, the capital city of Phnom Penh. At that time, the Khmer Rouge regime evacuated people from the city to rural labor camps, to the countryside. In two or three days, three million people from the capital city were all evacuated. And then other cities in the country followed. The goal of the Khmer Rouge regime at that time was to transform Cambodia into an agrarian communist utopia, like an agricultural society.
During that time, you did not know that the country was transformed into an agricultural society. The propaganda at that time was claiming that everybody had to leave the city because Americans were going to bomb. That’s all you heard, that’s all you knew at that time. Nobody expected evacuation from your home, but you were forced with gunpoint. You had no choice.
When Mr. Lim says you in this story, he means I. It’s jarring as a reader, to have a gun suddenly pulled on you like that, so we’ll take a break here and continue his story tomorrow.