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Sunday, January 18, 2009

Complex remains refuge in a new land

By Jennifer Torres
Record Staff Writer

Now Chhit is the 26-year-old mother of a Cleveland School kindergartner named Donovan.

They share an apartment at Park Village, a place where breezeways shuttle ghosts and gossip, and walls shelter lives still touched by past tragedies.

On a chilly morning before Christmas, Chhit wrapped herself in a sweater and sat in the corner of her couch. High on her living room's walls hung paintings of Cambodian villages she has never seen, and stacked neatly in shelves were magazines - Cosmopolitan, Glamour, Us - that Chhit and her sisters trade back and forth.

Donovan had a few minutes more to sleep before his mother woke him for school.

Terror to terror

In 1975, Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge forces took over Cambodia, and over the next four years, nearly 2 million people - more than 20 percent of Cambodia's population - were killed in a campaign of forced labor, starvation and execution.

Thousands fled. More than 150,000 of them were moved to the United States.

Federal authorities tried to place refugees across the country to diffuse their impact. But Cambodian families wanted to live near each other, and enclaves such as Park Village grew.

Cultural and linguistic concentration - along with the trauma they had suffered - led to isolation. But it also helped preserve traditions and networks of support.

Soth Chhit, Savan's father, fled Cambodia with his family in January 1979, and for the next six years, they lived in Thai refugee camps.

On Sept. 12, 1985, the family arrived in Louisville, Ky., but after five months, they moved again - to No. 42 at Park Village.

"We heard rumors about California," Chhit said, "that it was like a Cambodian homeland."

He remembers pandemonium at the complex three years later.

Parents were yelling. Something had happened at their children's school.

Chhit rushed to Cleveland. He couldn't find Savan.

"But we found all her articles," he said. "We didn't know if she was alive, and there was no one there to explain."

She had been shot three times in the leg and was taken to Dameron Hospital.

"When I crawled from the playground to the hallway, a man was there," Savan said. She said the man helped her and rode with her to the hospital, but she never found out who he was.

The walls have ears

Tacked above Phan Mao's apartment door is a Buddhist prayer forbidding evil to enter.

Mao moved to Park Village from Texas in 1987.

"It felt almost like home because of all the countrymen," she said.

Her 10 children attended Cleveland School.

On a recent afternoon, women gathered in her apartment to prepare for a prayer service planned for a dying neighbor.

Monks from the Wat Dharmararam Buddhist Temple on Carpenter Road come almost weekly to Park Village for religious ceremonies.

Two came to lead chants for Thang Pen, Mao's neighbor, who lay in a hospital bed.

Men and women left their shoes outside Pen's door and knelt around her to pray.

Savan believes that when people die, their ghosts sometimes return. When she was younger, she worried about seeing ghosts at Park Village.

Now she worries about the eyes of elderly neighbors who report her comings and goings to her mother.

It's impossible to keep secrets inside the complex, she said.

Maintaining a haven

The Park Village Apartments were built in 1968. By 1989, they were desperately run-down.

Children had nowhere to play. Residents faced flooding, crowding and sewage leaks.

Finally, as authorities were threatening to close Park Village because of its squalor, its owner defaulted on government loans, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development took control.

In 1993, a low-income housing organization and a group of tenants working together as the Asian Pacific Self-Development and Residential Association, or APSARA, bought the complex from HUD for $1.

The apartments and grounds were extensively renovated, and social service programs were developed.

In October, Park Village residents began a celebration of APSARA's 15th anniversary with a Cambodian blessing dance.

Leaders talked about how Park Village had become a center of Cambodian-American life. Police officials discussed how safety had improved in the community, which had once been the birthplace of the Loc Town Crips street gang.

When the sound system failed, APSARA's assistant director, Vanna Prasit, joked that the organization's equipment was also in its 15th year, and money to replace it was even scarcer than in the past.

Park Village offers after-school tutoring, lunch and social activities for seniors, a fitness program, and dance and language lessons. There is also a Head Start preschool inside the community's gates.

But budget troubles have scaled back many programs, and Prasit worries others are threatened.
On a rainy afternoon just before winter break, her daughter, a Cleveland first-grader, was among the children who ran inside the community center to play and finish homework. Some pushed strollers carrying baby siblings. Many brought snacks left over from school lunches. A group of girls popped tapes of Cambodian music into a casette player and practiced dances.

Ties to Cleveland

At Park Village, there are many residents who, like Savan, are too young to remember the horrors of the Khmer Rouge. And many like her son, for whom the most frightening day at Cleveland was the first day of kindergarten, when he tried to run home.

Still, the past keeps tugging at lives moving forward, and ties to Cleveland remain strong.

In April 2006, when Stockton Unified officials proposed an attendance-boundary change that would send Park Village children to a different elementary school, parents protested. Six months later, when Pat Busher retired as Cleveland's longtime principal, the community held a celebration in her honor.

Chhit said Donovan's teacher is Cambodian and understands how to communicate with Cambodian families.

At 7:30 a.m., she woke him for school. He rubbed his eyes as she led him to the bathroom and turned on the faucet.

Chhit dropped out of Stagg High School after her junior year. She hopes to earn her diploma at adult school.

On her right leg is a deep scar left from the shooting. Sometimes, she said, that leg still hurts.

Contact reporter Jennifer Torres at (209) 546-8252 or

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‘Cambodia’s friendship priceless,’ NA leader

Of course, the friendship between Yuon and Khmer is priceless for centuries for Khmer Kingdom. The friendship had cost Cambodia everything, including natural resources.

HA NOI — National Assembly Chairman Nguyen Phu Trong said that it had always been Viet Nam’s policy to develop friendship and multi-faceted co-operation with Cambodia at a meeting yesterday with Cambodian National Assembly Chairman Heng Samrin.

Viet Nam had always considered its traditional friendship with Cambodia as priceless for both nations, he said.

Trong said the two sides should educate people, especially the young, to continue preserving this traditional friendship and co-operation.

He said that Vietnamese people, being a close friend and neighbour of Cambodia, were happy to see the great achievements of Cambodian people in recent years.

"Viet Nam has always supported the Cambodian Government’s policies for the country’s development, the happiness of the Cambodian people, and peace and stability in the region," he said.

He said the two legislative bodies should take more practical measures to boost relations with each other.

Trong praised the two National Assemblies for ratifying an additional pact for the Border Demarcation Agreement between Viet Nam and Cambodia.

Trong also expressed thanks for the support that Cambodian people had given to Viet Nam in recent times. He thanked the Cambodian National Assembly and Government for creating favourable conditions for the Vietnamese community living in Cambodia, and for helping Viet Nam to find the remains of Vietnamese volunteer soldiers who died in Cambodia.

Cambodian NA Chairman Heng Samrin expressed his appreciation for strong co-operation between the two NAs, and said he believed that the two would continue to boost relations between the two countries.

Heng Samrin said he was happy to see co-operation between the two nations expanding in so many aspects.

He affirmed that the Cambodian National Assembly and people supported the development of co-operation with Viet Nam.

He said Cambodia was determined to complete border demarcation with Viet Nam by early 2012.

On behalf of the Cambodian National Assembly and the people of Cambodia, Heng Samrin expressed his gratitude for the great support that the Party, Government and people of Viet Nam gave to Cambodia, especially in helping the Cambodian people to escape the Pol Pot genocidal regime.

He gave special thanks to the Vietnamese volunteer soldiers who died for international duties in Cambodia, and their families.

Warm welcome

Later yesterday, Heng Samrin was received by Viet Nam Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung.

He briefed Dung about the results of his meeting with his Vietnamese counterpart, Nguyen Phu Trong, saying it would boost bilateral ties.

Dung also spoke of the significance of Heng Samrin’s visit and congratulated Cambodians on achievements in socio-economic development, especially evident in the higher living standard of Cambodian people, the strengthened partnership that Cambodia had built with neighbouring countries and Cambodia’s stronger stance in the international arena. Dung said the legislative co-operation between the two National Assemblies had created a firm foundation for potential bonds in many areas. He said this would benefit both countries.

The PM took the opportunity to send his best wishes to Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni and other Cambodian leaders. — VNS
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