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Monday, January 12, 2009

The Cham draw on their inner strength

By Paloma Esquivel
January 12, 2009
In the secluded courtyard of a weathered condominium complex, at the dead end of a graffiti-marred Santa Ana street, the Cham are busy preparing a summer feast.

Banana trees grow tall here, shadowing crowded stalks of lemon grass and green onion. Severed bits of a cow slaughtered in conformity with Islamic law fill bright blue plastic tubs. Nearby, women sit cross-legged, chatting and laughing; their strong hands grind fresh ginger in stone mortars.

Centuries ago, the Cham ruled over their own kingdom, known as Champa, along the coastline of what's now Vietnam. They were maritime traders whose first religion was a form of Hinduism, but they later adopted Islam. Today they are a people without a homeland, their numbers a few hundred thousand. For centuries, they have been chased from place to place -- from the highlands of Vietnam to the rivers of Cambodia and, in the bloody aftermath of genocide, to the United States, where thousands have settled.

In the margins of each place, they've come together.

So it is here, where a hundred Cham families live in this worn Santa Ana complex alongside Latinos, Laotians and Cambodians. In the middle of one of the city's most crime-infested neighborhoods, they have turned one apartment into a mosque and built a world centered on faith. In celebration, neighbors prepare feasts and share stories. In hardship, they share burdens, the cost of food and the cost of burial.

But even as they've struggled to keep their small community intact, the outside world has crept in. Some young people have turned to gangs and drugs. Others have packed their bags and fled. A few have drifted from the religion and language that shaped their youth. Now, when the call to prayer goes out, the mosque is filled mostly with elders and small children, as if those in the middle simply disappeared.

On the day of the feast to celebrate the beginning of Ramadan and the end of the Islamic school year, one man finds himself wanting to rebuild his ties.

Nasia Ahmanth doesn't properly speak Cham, which is similar to Malay. He rarely attends mosque and can't read the Arabic of the Koran. He rarely prays.

He was a baby when his father, El Ahmanth, led a village of Cham refugees here. But as the group put down roots, Nasia drifted, lured by the streets. By the time he was 17, he says, he was an addict and speed was his drug of choice. As it raced through his body, he felt unstoppable, light and creative at once.

Now he's 30 and, he says, sober. He has a son of his own and two years ago moved out of the neighborhood to distance himself from drug-using friends. Last year, though, when his father died, he found himself looking homeward, wanting to rebuild his ties to a community he feared was fading.

"I want my son to know what Cham is," he said.

Nasia had just been born when his family fled the Khmer Rouge's brutal reign in Cambodia in 1979. They went to Thailand, then to refugee camps in the Philippines before landing in Santa Ana.

With a few hundred dollars in refugee assistance, his father rented an apartment on Minnie Street, in a neighborhood ravaged by shootings and drugs. He sponsored 10 families living in refugee camps in Thailand who had also fled Cambodia, and before long those families were sponsoring more refugees.

Ghazaly Salim and his wife and daughters were among the first to arrive, coming at the senior Ahmanth's request after first landing in Houston.

Today Salim, 56, is a telephone installer who spends his off time organizing the mosque. He is something of a community patriarch. He values faith and piety above all, and, though it's not a Cham tradition, he wears a skullcap as a sign of fealty.

Decades ago, he was a religious student in Cambodia. Just before it was time to leave for the school, he went, house by house, to his neighbors. Each family gave him some rice to sell in the market so he could pay for school.

Sticking together "is what our grandfathers taught us," he said.

In Santa Ana, he found freedom and opportunity -- and more struggle.

Minnie Street runs parallel to Santa Ana's north-south railroad tracks, a place of squalor and danger. Over the years, it became a first stop for immigrant families: Latinos, followed by Cambodians and Laotians and then Cham. In this new home, windows were lined with bars. Paint peeled, cockroaches crawled on walls, and rodents scurried across the floors. Families packed 10 to an apartment.

In villages in Cambodia and Vietnam, the Cham had been renowned blacksmiths and rice farmers. In Santa Ana, they struggled to find work in packing plants, as janitors and on assembly lines for minimum wage.

Nasia's mother, Sani Karim, worked on an electronics assembly line. His father got a better job as a teacher's assistant at the nearby elementary school. Those who couldn't find work spent days sitting on the sidewalk or standing idly in doorways. At night, drug dealers could be heard whistling to warn others when police cars cruised by.

Even so, many of the Cham determined to build a mosque. Almost as soon as they arrived, they pooled their minimum-wage salaries and asked for help from local Arab Muslims. In three years they had enough to buy Building B-2, a dingy single-story unit with bars on the windows and a door that opens onto a concrete courtyard. Most moved into surrounding units; others rented nearby.

Five times a day, the call to prayer from B-2 sounds across the neighborhood. Inside, men line up on prayer rugs laid over a linoleum floor. Women, who don't go outside without covering their hair with scarves, go to a white-walled bedroom in the back for their own prayer.

For elders, the mosque and its courtyard are a refuge. But younger generations have struggled to navigate between their insular community and the world that surrounds them.

"You can only go to the mosque so much before you get tired of the uniformity," said Mogul Ahmanth, 35, Nasia's brother.

Here, it isn't difficult to find a different way of life.

Late last year, more than 200 heavily armed police and federal agents raided the condo complex. Eighteen people, mostly Latinos suspected of dealing heroin and cocaine for the Minnie Street Lopers, a local street gang, were dragged out in handcuffs. Inside apartments, agents found semiautomatic weapons and a bolt-action SKS carbine with a foldaway bayonet, popular with communist troops in Vietnam. Heroin, rock cocaine and 3 pounds of methamphetamine were also seized; some of the drugs had been stashed in tree trunks.

When he was young, Nasia's father would regale him with stories about the Cham. As a child he sometimes imagined his father's position of leadership in the community made him something of a Cham prince.

As they grew, the father advised his three young boys to go to mosque and talk to the elders. Get involved in their discussions, he told them. Help with small things -- moving chairs, cleaning up, organizing events.

"You need to learn to walk before you can run," he said.

Nasia rejected his father's way of life in favor of the one he saw friends adopting. In junior high, he joined a group of Cambodian and Laotian homeboys in a tagging crew. In high school they became a gang. They never did anything too bad, he insists. But there was alcohol, then pot. Eventually, he found himself in the bathroom of a friend's Minnie Street apartment, inhaling his first line of speed. Addiction seemed to come quickly.

He remembers going home before dawn one day, his pupils dilated, his teeth grinding.

His father stared at him. "I know what you're up to."

The man who believed Nasia would grow up to be an architect, who imagined he would help lead the Cham, looked at his son and walked away.

A short time later, the son packed his belongings and left for Delaware, where a friend lived. He worked as a machine operator for four years, until he knew he could go home without turning back to drugs. He returned four years ago.

But the community regards him with suspicion. Although he considers himself a Muslim, he admits he doesn't embrace regular prayer or other tenets of the faith.

"Religion is the way of life," said Salim, the community leader. "You have to know religion to lead. You have to know what to teach."

Even so, when Nasia's father died last year, the urge to embrace his community grew stronger.

The Cham stories his father told him when he was younger have stayed with him; they hold a power over him. He believes that one day the Cham might have their own homeland again.

Recently, his father's advice about volunteering to help, about learning to walk before running, has echoed in his mind.

He began talking to Mathsait Ly, an older cousin, about helping, and he persisted until Ly gave him a chance. This year, Ly asked him to join the Cham board of directors as event coordinator, making him its youngest member. He would serve as master of ceremonies at the feast marking the beginning of Ramadan and the end of the Islamic school year.

The day of the feast, elders woke early to roast sweet marinated meat; women made rice, cauliflower and pickled carrots sliced thin as paper.

A few men tended fresh meat grilling over hot coals. Others lifted a giant aluminum pot full of boiling tripe onto a gas fire. Someone had tagged a giant red face with Xs for eyes on a condominium wall.

Salim and Ly scuttled about, giving directions and watching over the celebration.

Nasia showed up a few hours late -- about 10 a.m. The others had been up before dawn.

"I went to a movie last night," he said, smiling apologetically.

Inside the mosque, he nervously paced on prayer rugs, his shiny black hair combed back neatly. A group of graduating students shuffled in place, tugging at stiff shirts and long robes.

Nasia glanced at a speech he'd written for the crowd gathering outside. He clicked the end of his pen over and over again, reading aloud, tripping over unfamiliar Arabic words.

When he took to the stage, his voice hardly registered, despite the microphone in front of him.

"This day is about coming together to celebrate the end of Ramadan," he said -- though it marked the start of the traditional month of fasting. No one seemed to notice the slip.

"This," Nasia Ahmanth said, "is the day where parents become proud of their child."
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Rights & Wrongs: Cambodia, Ethiopia, DRC and More

CAMBODIA MARKS ANNIVERSARY, BUT NO CLOSURE -- Cambodia marked the 30th anniversary of the demise of the Khmer Rouge regime Jan. 7 with memorials for the suffering of millions. But the country remains haunted by the knowledge that perpetrators of Cambodia's greatest crime have yet to stand trial for their crimes.

Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge regime held sway over Cambodia from 1975-1979, a period in which millions of Cambodians died from torture, overwork, starvation and executions. In early 1979, a joint Vietnamese-Cambodian force toppled the regime, bringing in a new government largely beholden to its Vietnamese allies. Some Cambodians object to celebrating the date's anniversary, as it ushered in a decade of restrictive Vietnamese control, while others mark it as the close to Cambodia's darkest chapter.

The celebrations contained no public recognition of the lingering frustration and confusion over the government's failure so far to try any of the people responsible for the Khmer Rouge's worst atrocities, despite the efforts of a United Nations-backed tribunal designed to do so.

Many of the Khmer Rouge's most notorious leaders have passed away, including Pol Pot, who died in 1998. But five central figures of the regime's murderous campaigns have been indicted by the court and are awaiting trial on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Kang Kek Ieu (better known as "Duch"), who commanded the infamous S-21 torture center in Phnom Penh where 15,000 prisoners -- nearly everyone who entered the facility -- died, may be the first to go on trial in March.

Rights groups and opposition politicians have questioned the tribunal's ability to conduct its operations free from political influence, raising the specter of a government unwilling to let the trials proceed due to fears some of its cadres might be implicated during the process.

"After 30 years, no one has been tried, convicted or sentenced for the crimes of one of the bloodiest regimes of the 20th century. This is no accident. For more than a decade, China and the United States blocked efforts at accountability, and for the past decade Hun Sen has done his best to thwart justice," Brad Adams, Asia Director for Human Rights Watch said in a press release.

NEW ETHIOPIA LAW ANGERS RIGHTS ADVOCATES -- The Ethiopian government is coming under fire from rights groups and aid organizations over a new law that severely restricts the aid community's ability to address the health- and rights-related concerns of the Ethiopian population.

"The law's repressive provisions are believed to be an attempt by the Ethiopian government to conceal human rights violations, stifle critics and prevent public protest of its actions ahead of expected elections in 2010," Amnesty International said in a statement urging donor governments to condemn the legislation and monitor its implementation.

Parliament endorsed the law, which restricts the operations of any foreign group working on issues related to gender equality, children's rights, disabled rights, conflict resolution and criminal justice, on Jan. 6. Any domestic non-governmental organization receiving more than 10 percent of its funding from international sources will be subject to the same restrictions.

Opposition politicians and rights advocates predict as many as 95 percent of the 3,500 organizations working in Ethiopia will be forced to close their operations as a result of the law, and worry that the government will use the law as a means of control. The law's backers said no organizations would be closed but instead be required to fund and source their operations locally.
Ethiopia, desperately poor and facing yet another famine, is one of the world's largest donor recipients.

SENEGALESE GAY COMMUNITY REELS IN WAKE OF SENTENCES -- Senegalese judicial authorities sentenced nine gay men to jail terms of eight years each on charges of conspiracy and unnatural acts, Jan. 8. The decision, the first of its kind in Senegal, outraged gay rights groups and rattled a community already living in fear of punitive laws.

As Rights & Wrongs previously reported, dozens of countries around the world have laws criminalizing homosexual relations and a recent attempt by the United Nations General Assembly to reaffirm gay rights garnered mixed results. Senegal, considered one of Islamic Africa's most tolerant countries, has been commended in recent years for its advances on rights protection in general, but has been susceptible to rising anti-gay sentiment across the African continent.

SECURITY COUNCIL APPLAUDED FOR CONGO RESOLUTION -- Global Witness commended the United Nations Security Council last week for recent resolutions to prevent the financial exploitation of the Democratic Republic of Congo's resources to fuel conflict and human rights abuses there.

Human rights groups including Global Witness, which focuses exclusively on resource usage and international trade systems, have been raising concerns over the relationship between resources and conflict in the DRC for the better part of a decade.

The resolutions, passed by the UNSC on Dec. 22, give the U.N. peacekeeping force in the DRC the authority to "use its monitoring and inspection capacities to curtail the provision of support to illegal armed groups derived from illicit trade in natural resources," and provides for sanctions on any entity facilitating the operations of illegal armed groups through trade in resources.

Mining and sales of cassiterite (tin ore), gold, coltan (an essential component of mobile phones) and wolframite (from which tungsten is derived) are among the activities that fund armed groups in the area.

Recent violence in the DRC has forced more than 250,000 people from their homes, in addition to more than 1 million displaced by previous conflagrations. Rights abuses against the civilian population have been all too common. In particular, widespread use of rape as a weapon has reached epidemic proportions in DRC, with aid workers calling the situation the worst in the world. No one knows for sure how many women have been brutalized and estimates range from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands.

Juliette Terzieff is a journalist who specializes in human rights. Her WPR column, Rights & Wrongs, appears every other Monday.
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Lessons from Cambodia

By Roger Phillips
Record Staff Writer

STOCKTON - There was a photograph of a rural house that sits on stilts to protect it from flooding. There was a picture of a savory plate of noodles and vegetables cooked by a street vendor, a healthy dinner for 75 cents. And there was a photo of a traffic jam in Phnom Penh that looked as congested as anything one might find driving through rush-hour traffic on Interstate 205.

This was part of what Katie Schubert spoke of during her 35-minute slide show Sunday afternoon on Cambodia to about 150 congregants at Central United Methodist Church.

Schubert, 30, also was spreading the word about the purpose of the three months she spent in Cambodia late last year. The Stockton native who attended Central Methodist as a child was in the Southeast Asian country working for the nonprofit agency Project Against Domestic Violence. The organization held a 16-day anti-violence campaign leading up to world Human Rights Day on Dec. 10.

"People often think (domestic violence is caused by) alcohol or poverty," Schubert told her audience. "Those aggravate it, but they aren't the causes. It's really about aggression and power."

Schubert made her presentation as audience members lunched on egg rolls and other foods prepared by some of Central Methodist's Cambodian congregants.

During her stay in Cambodia, Schubert said she and her group visited villages and held forums to educate citizens about the effects of domestic violence. Schubert - who is pursuing a doctoral degree in ethics from the Claremont School of Theology in Southern California - said she is particularly interested in finding ways to use religion to empower women.

Though she comes at the subject from a Christian perspective, one of the photographs she showed was of three Buddhist nuns in largely Buddhist Cambodia. She said the nuns are active in teaching their country-men about human rights.

Toward the end of her program, Schubert fielded a few questions from the audience. Asked to describe her best experience on her journey, she said it was finding ways to communicate with citizens in Cambodian, a language in which she is not fluent.

Her worst experience, she said, was bargaining with merchants. She said she focused on trying to negotiate fair prices, but in retrospect the process made her feel "terrible."

"Take a couple of steps back," said Schubert. "My quality of life is great. I have so much more. ... I felt terrible about the inequality."
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Cambodian court charges suspected mastermind of bomb plots with terrorism

PHNOM PENH, Jan. 12 (Xinhua) -- The Phnom Penh Municipal Court here on Monday charged Sam Ek, the suspected mastermind of two foiled bomb plots in the city, with conducting terrorism acts and illegal recruitment of armed people.

The court will make further investigation and Ek will receive his sentence in around two weeks.

Cambodian police arrested the 48-year-old man and his three subordinates on Jan. 7 in Banteay Meanchey province.

Ek had confessed to police that he produced and laid explosive devices near the Ministry of National Defense and the state-run TV3 Station on Jan. 2, 2009, and also did the same thing near the Cambodian-Vietnamese Friendship Monument in 2007.

On both occasions, specialists detonated the bombs, without causing any damage and casualty.

In addition, Ek had created his anarchic and illegal army with tiger head as its logo and carried out some anti-government activities in Modulkiri and Koh Kong provinces in the past years, according to the police.

The suspect was a former soldier and also expert of using chemical substances to make explosive devices.
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