The Long Beach-based media organization Khmerican has teamed up with the YMCA of Greater Long Beach for a nationwide tour to accomplish three goals: raise awareness of the plight of children living on the streets in Cambodia, fundraise, and document the Cambodian American experience across the country.
The trip, which began last week and will end this week, serves as a means of connecting the often isolated Cambodian American communities across the U.S., from Lowell, Massachusetts to St. Louis, Missouri to Long Beach.
Bob Cabeza, the vice president of Community Development for the YMCA of Greater Long Beach, said the goal is for the children they meet to become “advocates for children, philanthropists, global citizens. We want to stoke the fire in kids’ hearts and have them make good, effective change.”
The YMCA of Greater Long Beach has been leading service trips to Cambodia for Cambodian Americans and other Long Beach residents since 2010.
Approximately 1.7 million Cambodians died during Pol Pot’s devastating rule as part of the Khmer Rouge. Over 200,000 Cambodian Americans now live in the U.S., and the largest population of Cambodians living outside of Cambodia is in Long Beach, according to the YMCA of Greater Long Beach’s documentary, A Cambodian Journey.
The YMCA works at staying in touch with veterans of past service trips and cultivating a group in Long Beach that is invested in strengthening Cambodia and the Cambodian-American community.
This nationwide road trip is part of that mission, according to Derek Pan, founder of Khmerican.
“We’re hitting 27 states; meeting thousands of Cambodian Americans who’ve never stepped foot in the country," he said.
The group embarked on June 22 and will return July 3 after driving across the country. Khmerican will document the trip through its citizen journalism angle.
“Khmerican gathers people across with world from the Cambodian diaspora,” said Cabeza. “It brings its own value of reaching out to the young.”
The YMCA service trips, dubbed The Cambodia Project, began with the help of donations from the Long Beach community and wealthy philanthropists. Every year, a group visits Siem Reap and Phnom Penh with donations and the intent of completing service projects, in partnership with the Cambodian YMCA.
“I heavily encourage Cambodians who have never been to Cambodia to come back here and learn,” said participant Michael Oun in the documentary that captures the service trip experience.
“Not enough of our Cambodian Americans are stepping in to help,” said Phyrus Men in the documentary. “They’re afraid, they’re scared, they’re ignorant. And if they can just break out of the shell and just stop for a minute to think about it, about who they’re helping, you know, their own family, It would make a world of a difference.”
Cabeza said the service trips, advocacy and community building in Cambodia and the U.S. are all about a simple question: “How do we help the most in the least amount of time?”
“Long term relationships with the place change people,” Cabeza said. “It makes you think about true poverty. Poverty in Cambodia means you’re on the street with a bloated belly, malnourished, digging through the trash.”
Cabeza said the recent trip across the U.S. seeks to teach Cambodian Americans the true nature of Cambodia, and how all Americans are connected to Cambodia’s devastating past and the rebuilding of its future.
“Cambodian Americans are dealing with the PTSD of their parents,” Cabeza said. “They need to understand what their parents went through.”
Pan said much of the trip will be aimed at spreading positive coverage of Cambodian Americans, rather than what he perceives as an often negative take on Cambodian Americans, fueled by media coverage of gang violence among the population.
“We plan on showing what we do—sharing our story, passion and program,” said Pan.
This story was updated on 7/1/15, correcting Derek Pan's name.