Cambodian rap group AZI Fellas drop a positive beat on their troubled past.
More than 1.7 million people—about 21 percent of the population—were starved to death or murdered, with many dumped into mass graves dubbed the Killing Fields.
Many Cambodians escaped to refugee camps in Thailand. As many as 500,000 people were detained in guarded, open-air camps where they had to fashion shelter out of bamboo and palm leaves. Some lived in the camps for more than a decade despite Pol Pot’s reign ending in 1979.
His mother was pregnant when she was chased into the jungle by the Khmer Rouge army, he says. He was born inside a Thai refugee camp. In’s father was forced into service with Cambodians fighting against the Khmer Rouge army. He never saw him again and presumes he died in war. When he was 2-years-old, In and the remainder of his family were sponsored to emigrate to America.
“If you got out, you was blessed,” In says.
Around 2,000 Cambodian families arrived in Philadelphia starting in 1979, continuing through the early 1990s. An estimated 14,000 refugees landed here thanks to the church and synagogue groups who sponsored them.
Most began their American existences in South Philadelphia before more permanent housing was found for them. There are about 20 Cambodian families within a block of Korn’s house.
“The majority of us were poor and had no formal education whatsoever,” says Rorng Sorn, the executive director of the Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia. “Then they put us in areas already in poor condition.”
Sorn, who spent 8 years living in refugee camps in Thailand with her parents and six siblings, was initially placed in a third floor efficiency apartment with 12 relatives. The family took turns sleeping on the floor.
“My mom was crying all the time,” she remembers. “She felt homesick even though she didn’t have a home in Cambodia anymore.”
The refugees, most of whom had been living in shanty towns at the foot of the mountains, received no orientation to this foreign place, not even English language training.
“They just told us, ‘Kids go to school. Parents go to work,’” says Sorn, who was 19 when she landed in Philadelphia.
She petitioned to attend South Philadelphia High School and graduated after two years. Then she attended the Community College of Philadelphia. After classes, she caught a van to a meat processing plant in New Jersey where she, her parents and her older sister peeled chicken off the bone from 4 p.m. until 2 a.m. every day. In the summer, she spent her days picking blueberries and other produce, usually beginning at 4 a.m.
The parents of the AZI Fellas have similar stories.
“Cambodians worked hard, striving to become good citizens,” Sorn says.
Between working so much and not being able to navigate the city because of poor language skills, many adults weren’t able to help their children adjust to life in Philadelphia.
Left to fend for themselves, many teenage Cambodians joined gangs.
On welfare and barely able to speak English, the young Cambodian refugees were easy targets when they first attended public schools in Philly. They were picked on and called names, and sometimes they got roughed up on the streets of their predominantly black neighborhoods—the exact same situation that continues to plague Asian immigrants today.
“Back then, there were no guns but there was a lot of fighting,” says Touch, who was kicked out of Bodine High School because he scrapped so much. He later earned his GED.
Gangs started as a form of protection, then evolved into turf battles. The AZI Fellas, living east of Fifth Street, aligned themselves with the Bloods while Crips ruled west of Fifth. When the gangs started dealing drugs in the mid-1990’s, the violence erupted.
“You could hear gunshots every night back then,” In says.