Sena Khim was in the middle of setting her life in place to be a good example for her eight children when she was killed last month in Long Beach.
The 37-year-old Cambodian refugee was two months shy of completing beauty school and working on getting her citizenship. She had plans to open up her own salon.
That was cut short May 7 when her 59-year-old boyfriend beat her to death at the home they shared, authorities allege.
On Thursday evening, family and friends mourned Khim during a candlelight vigil at the MAYE Center in Cambodia Town where she and her family volunteered.
But organizers also used the gathering as a space to take a stand against a broader problem. For too long, they said, their community has endured a culture of silence around the topic of domestic violence. In memory of Khim and her family, they said, it was time to change that.
Ending a culture of shame
“For Cambodians, this is deep, very deep,” said community leader Charles Song who served as emcee at the vigil.
He drew a parallel between a lack of action addressing domestic violence and the Cambodian genocide over 40 years ago that left over one million dead.
“I know exactly what killed us and that is fear,” Song said. “They killed our fathers and mothers and we stood by and didn’t say anything.”
Local family-practice physician Dr. Christina Lee said she’s seen the toll of abuse on her female patients and called for an end to what she described as violence and discrimination against women.
“As orphans we didn’t have a chance because of Pol Pot,” Lee said, referencing the Khmer Rouge dictator. And in Khim’s case: “These children are robbed of their mother’s love because of domestic violence.”
Part of the issue is that in the Cambodian community, it’s not customary to call police, said Laura Som, director of the MAYE Center and Khim’s childhood friend.
Even speaking up about domestic violence incidents is taboo, according to Som, but she and others say it’s time to remove that stigma.
“I want a transformational change in this community,” Som said. “We cannot stigmatize domestic violence. In her honor I would like to see that.”
Som hopes to start discussions with community leaders to figure out how to help victims and provide resources. Just as important, Som said, is a sense of understanding from the American legal system.
“You cannot use American standards for Cambodians going through this,” Som said.
Those close to Khim say she moved in with her boyfriend Soeun Sam shortly after separating from her husband about three years ago.
Khim was receiving domestic violence services from local nonprofit Cambodian Association of America at the time of her death, they said.
For Som, Khim’s death was especially difficult because it brought back memories of similar experiences for her as a child.
Incidents of domestic violence were common growing up in Cambodia, Som said, whether it was her cousin beating her mom or her foster dad torturing her foster mom.
When Som was 8 years old, she came home from her refugee camp to find her mother in a pool of blood and convulsing, nearly beaten to death, she said. Som froze in place and said her body protected itself by giving her amnesia.
“When I became conscious [I was] lying in a hospital bed next to mom,” Som said. “All my personality was wiped.”
Shortly after, she moved to California and eventually met Khim at Franklin Middle School.
They were part of a Cambodian posse, Som laughed. “I would sell backyard fruits and hook her up with guavas.”
Som said she didn’t properly deal with her past until after high school and had to interview people from her childhood to understand herself and move forward.
In the future, when Khim’s children are ready, Som hopes to guide them through their own journey of healing.
“They’re going through what I’m going through,” Som said. “They have to be ready; I’m just waiting.”
A family of volunteers
When Som came back to Long Beach after college, she reconnected with Khim in 2014, and soon after, Khim and her family began helping at the MAYE Center, which was just being established.
The center uses meditation, agriculture, yoga and education to heal the effects of trauma, especially for refugees of the Cambodian genocide of the ’70s.
Khim’s whole family would come help out.
“She was full of spirit and loved to laugh,” Som said.
Khim would teach English to the elders, help garden and lead yoga classes. She and her family, in turn, received services.
Som said the center will now make sure all eight of her children, who range in age from 5 to 15, are taken care of.
“All the resources that I have here at the center are all being given to these kids,” said Som.
Elders who Khim once taught are rotating cooking duties for her family; Som plans to personally oversee the children’s education by becoming a school advocate and making sure they have tutors.
The long-term goal, Som said, is to focus on higher education and help fight poverty and the cycle of trauma. A GoFundMe account has also been established for the children.
Remembering a mother, a friend
Despite being separated, Khim’s husband was always supportive of her goals, Som said.
He would ask Som to help Khim in any way she could; he even funded her schooling. And when things got tough at the home Khim shared with her boyfriend, she was always able to find refuge with her family and children, who live with their father.
“She worked hard to become a cosmetologist,” noted Khim’s eldest daughter, 15-year-old Sarana Nak.
Sarana Nak is expecting a girl of her own in the coming months and in honor of her mother, she will name the baby Stustine Amelia Sena Khim Nak. Khim was excited about becoming a grandmother, the family said.
Tina Lim, who helps take care of the children, said Khim would help with their homework, paint their nails and cook for them when she visited them.
Som, whom the family has given full power of attorney in Khim’s case, said the family wants the suspected killer locked away for life.
Sam, the boyfriend, is charged with one count of murder with an allegation that he used a wooden bar as a weapon, according to the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office. He’s pleaded not guilty and is being held in lieu of $2 million bail.
“I just want justice for my mom and (to) make sure he doesn’t get away with it,” her 14-year-old daughter Sarany Nak said.
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