When the Communist Khmer Rouge regime turned Cambodia into a killing field during the late 1970s, nearly 1.7 million Cambodians were killed while another million fled their country. Out of the estimated 130,000 that dispersed throughout the United States, a small community of refugees settled in the low-rent apartments of Minnie Street, Santa Ana. 

Five of the refugees staying in Santa Ana established a community-based organization in February 1980 to teach their monolingual neighbors English, provide emergency translation and ease assimilation with adjustment counseling. 

Awareness of their services spread through word-of-mouth in this tight-knit community and their nonprofit, “The Cambodian Family,” became a household name for many local refugees who came to the establishment for help.

Forty-two years later, the nonprofit now offers 17 different services with five language capacities spanning three categories: community health and mental health, youth, and civic engagement and immigration.

Access To Services

While The Cambodian Family was initially created to help Cambodian refugees assimilate to the United States, it has grown to welcome refugees and immigrants of all ethnicities, including those from Vietnam, Laos, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Russia, Ukraine, Bosnia, Ethiopia and Somalia.

The Cambodian Family staff has a language capacity that includes includes English, Khmer (Cambodian), Cham, Spanish and Vietnamese. Individuals looking for in-language services that do not include one of the five are often referred to other providers, partners or trusted organizations that are able to help.

Vattana Peong, executive director of The Cambodian Family, said the Cambodian population in Orange County does not meet the population threshold for receiving county level accommodations like translated documents, which inhibits them from accessing mainstream providers or receiving accurate and up-to-date public health announcements.

Dancer Victoria Ung dressed in traditional Cambodian attire and performed a Cambodian classical dance, called the Blessing Dance, during The Cambodian Family’s community resource fair in August. Credit: Photo courtesy of The Cambodian Family

 The Cambodian Family partially addresses this need through the referral and translation services it provides, but its capacity to help all clients in a timely and effective manner is limited.

“When people need mental health counseling or treatment, we refer it out. But a lot of providers in Orange County are not bilingual/bicultural. When we refer (clients) out, they end up referred back to us and we do not provide that,” Peong said. “It’s like a cycle of inequity or lack of access.”

A shift occurred in 2018 when the nonprofit had finally received enough funds to open the first ever in-language mental health counseling service for the Cambodian community in Orange County, which is an example of how it has bridged the gap in social services by providing culturally and linguistically sensitive care to its clients. 

Sophia Chhoeng, a program director at The Cambodian Family, echoed Peong’s sentiments about the health disparities present in the Cambodian community, which started with untreated post-war trauma and worsened as survival stress prompted the onset of diseases, strokes and more.

“When our clients would need help with things like translation, or they have very particular ailments and diseases that’s rooted in genocide, it is important that these things are part of policy and service providers, like hospitals and doctors, are culturally competent or at least aware of these type of afflictions on our community,” Chhoeng said. 

Navigating the Pandemic

The Cambodian Family’s clientele rely heavily on this grassroots organization for in-language information dissemination, social services and, most importantly, a sense of connectedness and community away from home.

The onset of the pandemic prevented the community at The Cambodian Family from gathering, whether it was for services or socialization. Children in the youth program had to quickly navigate from walking to school to logging onto Zoom and the safe space provided by The Cambodian Family quickly became remote.

“During the pandemic, we had to pivot with very little time, and no additional funding to make sure that our youth and parents were still getting the services,” said Sophia Soberon, the youth program and immigration coordinator at The Cambodian Family.

In addition to the great stress that digital learning had put on already struggling youths and their families, accessing in-language public health information regarding COVID-19 would have been near impossible without The Cambodian Family acting as the bridge.

“There’s still a very measurable community out there of children and families who are struggling with accessing resources in culturally relevant and linguistically appropriate ways. And so, during this pandemic, we had to figure out how we could tune into what those areas of concern are, in a way that we could also put the volume on high, so that the rest of the community was seeing the things that we were seeing with our community,” Soberon said.

The nonprofit is constantly advertising resources and its services in various languages. For example, individuals who attended the Tet Festival in Fountain Valley at the start of February could pick up fliers in English, Spanish and Vietnamese, detailing programs and services they may not know they were qualified for or have the right to access. This included programs such as Medi-Cal, CalFresh, Covered California, CalWORKs and dental appointments.

“The first three months, The Cambodian Family had been working closely with our staff members who are bilingual to reach out directly to our key members to inform them about this public health information in-language. And later on, we joined the OC API (Orange County Asian and Pacific Islander) Task Force to really work with the County of Orange Healthcare Agency to create all the education materials in-language,” Peong said. 

As a result of its work with OC API Task Force, The Cambodian Family was able to circulate vital information to its community members about COVID-19 and host a pop-up clinic to vaccinate its elder adults (and others) for free. 

Ten Minutes Can Affect the Next Ten Years

On top of the COVID chaos, The Cambodian Family had another looming item on its agenda that could affect it and community members significantly in the long-run: the census.

“I didn’t have full confidence that everyone was counted because it happened during the pandemic and it was really challenging,” Peong said. “Hopefully, the census 2020 result will be coming out and will tell us a different story.”

According to Chhoeng, the census is significant to The Cambodian Family’s line of work because it will be used to determine the allocation of funds from the government. If there is a big enough population of Cambodian individuals in Orange County, they could also become eligible to receive translated documents from the county.

“You go to a city council meeting and you can’t get a translation because there’s not a lot of you, right? See, that’s a disparity right there,” Chhoeng said. “This person has every right to attend the meeting and to get proper information, because they’re a resident of the city, but because the city uses the census to determine what languages get translated day of, that person gets left out from a very important decision that they have every right to be part of.”

Chhoeng oversaw The Cambodian Family’s efforts to promote awareness about the census through a campaign called the OC Cambodian Complete Count Committee, which was established with resident leaders, business owners and religious figures to spread the word about the 2020 census and how it directly affects ethnic communities in Orange County. 

According to The Cambodian Family, the nonprofit’s client demographics are 35% Hispanic and Latino, 5% other and 60% Asian, 90% of whom are Cambodian. Out of over 3,000 clients served as of the end of 2021, 95% of clients were considered low-income.

The Orange County Cambodian Complete Count Committee was made up of resident leaders, business owners and religious figures to encourage community members to fill out the 2020 census. Credit: Photo courtesy of The Cambodian Family

The census can inform decision-makers about which projects to fund, which could help to reduce the current systemic barriers in place that limit access to resources or information. For the low-income, non-English speaking community members at The Cambodian Family, the census’ count is a literal reflection of their social and economic visibility.

“I think for us, creating visibility and letting people know we exist, which for, at least the younger generation, it’s like, we have to help be that voice. Especially from our culture, at least, it’s the sentiment too, like, don’t bother people with your problems,” Chhoeng said. “It’s so hard to let them know that it’s OK to say you have needs, culturally. That’s a barrier for us as well that we have to break.”

Empowering Constituents 

The Cambodian Family is both a critical service provider and a messenger for Orange County’s unseen Cambodian community. While all the services it provides are significant in their own ways, its commitment to promoting civic engagement is what will allow its members to become empowered constituents.

“In addition to providing the right services, we are here to empower and build the capacity of our local residents to be an advocate for change,” Peong said. “Because at the end of the day, they’re going to be the ones who helped their own community members to be successful, to be the voices from their community.”

The Cambodian Family views building up the independence and resiliency of its members as a long-term solution to bridging the social inequity gap, whether that be through growing its members’ English-speaking skills or teaching its youth how to navigate digital platforms.

The Cambodian Family maintained a sense of connection and normalcy with their clients by encouraging socialization via Zoom, where adults could still access their mental health services or youths could learn origami. Credit: Photo courtesy of The Cambodian Family

“We’re helping to give them the tools so that they can become lifelong learners,” Soberon said. “But also by doing this in a way where they feel that sense of closeness and relationship and rapport with us, so that they know they can still come to us if they need to. But by giving them sort of that sense of fulfillment, we’re actually also helping them stand more on their own feet.” 

The Cambodian Family encourages its elder, monolingual population to gain familiarity with public service sectors in order to build up confidence during times when the nonprofit’s staff are unable to assist them, like making a dentist appointment with a language barrier or locating the closest bus stop in an unfamiliar area. 

According to Chhoeng, The Cambodian Family is very intentional about bringing its clientele into decision-making spaces. One of the ways in which the organization does this is through its civic engagement program, where members get to meet elected officials and advocate for their community themselves, rather than through a messenger. 

“Even though they’re always going to need our help in terms of translation and interpretation,” Chhoeng said, “we really strive to make sure that when we’re bridging these gaps, that it’s the face of the community that gets the messaging out.”

Peong said being present in decision-making spaces is not the same as having a voice. As an agency, The Cambodian Family wants to ensure an available seat for all its members, but that these members are also meaningfully engaged in the decision-making process rather than tokenized.

“How do you meaningfully engage those people at a table and take their feedback? That’s what we do at The Cambodian Family,” Peong said.

If One of Us is Unwell, the Whole Community is Unwell

Peong saw the closures of multiple Cambodian nonprofits during the 11 years he served at The Cambodian Family, which makes him that much more proud that the organization is healthily and happily celebrating its 42nd birthday this February.

As the only Cambodian-serving nonprofit in Orange County, The Cambodian Family is in a unique position to leverage partnerships with community partners, according to Peong. 

“That is what our goal is,” Peong said, “To make sure that our community members can access services, and that there is no wrong door in terms of accessing the service.”

The agency’s growth toward serving other ethnic minorities mirrors the local crises, hardships and demographic changes that occur among Orange County residents. Its recent decision to join the OC API task force during the pandemic is a reflection of this growth. 

Peong hopes to continue expanding partnerships and working on collaborations in order to keep up the momentum the family has created so far in bridging the social and economic inequity gap.

“If you come to us and you speak Vietnamese, I know that there is another organization that provides services in Vietnamese and we want to make sure we refer them to a trusted organization,” Peong said. “We don’t want to refer to organizations that we don’t even know.”

Building trust on an individual and community scale is how its services reached a majority of its clientele. Out of 85 clients that have utilized The Cambodian Family’s in-language mental health counseling and support group services, 90% of them were referred by existing clients, according to the nonprofit.

In a similar way, Peong believes The Cambodian Family can help foster this sense of trust in community through leading by example, as it has done for the past 42 years, so that public sectors can better understand and learn how to best serve Orange County’s diverse population.

“We want to make sure that all providers and government services take the cultural and linguistic needs of diverse communities seriously and create a partner with a trusted community-based organization like us,” Peong said. “If one of us is not well in the community, then the whole community is not well.”

Kim Pham is a contributing writer for Voice of OC Arts & Culture. She can be reached at kimhphm@gmail.com.

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