Cambodians entered the United States as refugees after a group of Cambodian Communists named the Khmer Rouge, led by the French-educated Pol Pot, won a civil war that lasted from 1970 to 1975. The Khmer Rouge maintained power from 1975 to 1979 by destroying all the major institutions in the country; 1.7 million people out of a total population of 7.9 million died from executions, hunger, diseases, injuries, coerced labor, and exposure to the elements.
Thus, refugees to the U.S. came in three waves: just before the Khmer Rouge takeover, during the regime’s existence, and after the regime was overthrown by former Khmer Rouge personnel. They opposed Pol Pot’s extremist ideology and savage
practices, returning in late December of 1978 accompanied by 120,000 Vietnamese troops to topple the government of their former comrades. This led to a second civil war erupting along the Thai-Cambodian border.
When hundreds of thousands of Cambodians (along with Laotians and Vietnamese) showed up at the Thai-Cambodian border, they were denied asylum by the Thai government/military and were mistreated. 158,000 Cambodians gained entry into the United States between 1975 and 1994, most using refugee status, though a small number came as immigrants or “humanitarian parolees”.
Cambodian ethnic communities started to form throughout the U.S., many of them in locations chosen by the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement, and the 1990 census found Cambodians living in all 50 states. Only 5% of refugees, of whom were mostly educated people from the first wave of refugees in 1975, secured white-collar jobs. 40 to 50 percent of refugees who arrived in the second and third waves found blue collar occupations, while the rest have relied on public assistance. A significant portion of third-wave refugees are households headed by women, as fathers, husbands, and sons have been killed by the Khmer Rouge. Many of these women have not had to engage in wage labor before coming to the U.S., thus presenting a difficult transition between their lifestyle in Cambodia and the new challenges faced in America.
Some of the issues plaguing the community (read more about this topic here):
- Post-traumatic stress disorder, victims of which have received very little help to deal with the symptoms;
- Gang violence and the susceptibility for people to join gangs at a young age;
- Young people dropping out of school due to a lack of role models;
- Reviving Cambodian classical dance, music, and other performing/visual arts;
- Rebuilding institutions, particularly Buddhist temples, with the purpose of resuscitating their social institutions and culture that the Khmer Rouge had tried to destroy during their reign of terror.