Chhoub Chhoun (left) and sister Thilda in the UUC's offices. Photos by Jason Ruiz.
For the last 35 years, The United Cambodian Community in Long Beach has helped mitigate immigrants’ struggles with cultural assimilation.
Nineteen-year-old Chhoub Chhoun, and his sister, Thilda, 17, are just two of many volunteers who work out of the modest, upstairs suite on Anaheim Street in the middle of Cambodia Town. Both have volunteered hundreds of hours to the community, doing anything from performing secretarial duties and tutoring peers to working food drives. Tomorrow, the UCC will honor Chhoub and Thilda for their relentless efforts and dedication to helping others at the non-profit's 35 Anniversary celebration.
Despite the breadth of issues the UCC tackles, it represents something much simpler to Chhoub. “When I’m here, it feels safe,” he said.
Thilda and Chhoub are children of Cambodian refugees, who like countless others, were forced to flee their country during the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970’s. They’ve never met their extended family, and after their parents separated, the two were forced to become interpreters for their mother who speaks very little English. They know first-hand the obstacles that new immigrants face in this country and the challenges it presents to their children.
“She never came to parent-teacher meetings,” Chhoub said. “It’s not that she’s a bad parent, she just can’t communicate.”
The assimilation issues didn’t stop at the language barrier. Cultural differences often lead to disagreements between Thilda and her mother that left her living at friends’ houses and eventually landed her in the foster care of a Guatemalan family. Thilda, who now serves as an interpreter at the UCC, was forced to communicate with her foster parents through their English-speaking daughter. She jokes that her experience in the home inspired her to take on French and Spanish as her third and fourth languages.
“I want to learn as many languages as I can so that doesn’t happen again,” Thilda said with a smile on her face.
Over the past five years, Thilda and Chhoub have overcome their personal struggles to take on leadership roles at the UCC. This April, Chhoub served as parade monitor and was charged with making sure that the Cambodian New Year floats didn’t collide with each other, something he took great pride in. Thilda teaches a class at the UCC that helps adults learn about the Constitution and America’s political process before applying for citizenship. Stephen Khou, youth organizer at the UCC says it’s simple to understand why these kids happily devote so much of their free time aiding others.
“They take pride in what they do because they see themselves being recognized for it,” Khou said. “There’s a reason why these kids come here even though they don’t need the hours. Because when they help someone, they’re proud of themselves for that.”
Khou is endearingly referred to as “Poou”—Cambodian for uncle-by his kids. As youth coordinator, he knows the work ethic of both the Chhoun siblings. He also knows the struggles they’ve overcome to be successful contributors to the Cambodian community.
“I’ve been through the same things they have,“ Khou said. “Everything they’ve seen, I’ve seen already. Born and raised, Eastside Long Beach, just like them. We’re two peas in the same pod. My pod’s just a little bit older.”
Although the Chhoun siblings are anxious to be recognized at the masquerade-themed celebration tomorrow night, their aspirations for the future don’t stop there. Chhoub is finishing up his general education at Long Beach Community College and hopes to transfer to CSULB. Thilda is eyeing the possibility of a career in law after she graduates from Long Beach Polytechnic High School.
“I think I want to become a lawyer,” Thilda said. “I just like helping people. Even if they don’t need it, I still ask them.”
The UCC 35th Anniversary and Award Ceremony titled “Engaging New Faces in Our Community” will take place at Hak Heang Restaurant (2041 E. Anaheim St.) tomorrow at 6PM The price of admission is $70 with all proceeds going toward funding programs to benefit the Cambodian community in Long Beach.