Cambodian community here in Long Beach is a vibrant one, boasting the largest Cambodian population anywhere outside of Cambodia itself. Many of the Cambodians here are immigrants and it is not uncommon to hear stories of struggle and pasts engulfed in violence, as many witnessed the disastrous results of the Khmer Rouge rule over Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. When the regime was able to overthrow the then-U.S.-backed government once the U.S. left neighboring Vietnam, it led to the murder of some two million Cambodians in what many consider a genocide.
A U.N.-backed trial finally started in 2003 and has faced immense trouble, with its second judge leaving the trial this past March after feeling that the Cambodian-led side was preventing further investigation into the crimes -- the second such accusation by an outside judge.
This history is important to the Cambodians here in Long Beach (as it would with anyone involved in such atrocities). And unlike some, they are not afraid to speak out about what happened to them, what their views are, and how they function in the dichotomy of U.S. living and Cambodian political history.
Meet one such woman: Oni Vitandham. Her story is almost fairy tale-like, having been born a Cambodian princess in 1972 in the Kompong Speu province of Central Cambodia. Her father, a resistor to the Khmer Rouge regime, went to fight against them after placing his daughter in the hands of friends. It is presumed he was killed under the hands of the regime's deathly rule and, sadly, Oni watched caregiver after caregiver come and go as the regime continued its brutality.
In 1983, she became a refugee in the U.S., where life was not that easy. Often sleeping on a cement floor in a warehouse here in Long Beach, Oni eventually rose up to become one of the world's foremost leading advocates for children's rights, having founded the Progressive United Action Association, Inc (PUAAI) in 1995. This non-profit organization is dedicated to promoting social justice and enriching the lives of Cambodian children through education, health care, HIV/AIDS prevention, and humanitarian relief. During the past 14 years, PUAAI has established 17 schools in Cambodia.
In addition, she has spoken before the United States Congress as well as the International Conference of Chief Justices held in Lucknow, India. Oni has also written human rights resolutions adopted by the Human Rights commission of the United Nations, and U.S. State Department.
In other words: you should share your ear with her story, which she will share in return with Long Beach at Portfolio Coffeehouse when she reads parts of her book, On the Wings of a White Horse. The event will occur on Saturday, May 5, from 2:00pm to 5:00pm.
Portfolio Coffeehouse, 2300 E. 4th St. 562-434-2486