For Sithary Ly, living in Long Beach over the last 17 years with her husband, Bovannak, life has been a constant stream of adjusting to a world much different than where they grew up, and healing painful wounds while trying to raise and relate to their American-born children.
“My experiences with the Khmer Rouge are affecting them,” said the 51-year-old mother of three. “I'm very over-protective and sometimes I go through my depression, flashing back, and have not been as gentle with them. I just don’t want them to suffer like we did.”
Suffering is an understatement. Ly, her family and millions of other Cambodians endured “extermination encompassing murder, political persecution, and other inhumane acts comprising forced transfer, enforced disappearances and attacks against human dignity,” according to a United Nations-backed tribunal that convicted leaders of the Khmer Rouge that took over Cambodia in 1975. The 1984 film, The Killing Fields, is set against the backdrop of the Khmer Rouge’s massacre of approximately 2 million people between 1975 and 1979.
“Due to the trauma experienced, 62 percent of Cambodian adults live with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and many survivors still have nightmares, panic attacks, headaches, stomach aches and insomnia.” - Susana Sngiem
“When I was 10 years old, my father was killed on the second day the country was taken over, and life went down like a plane crash,” Ly recalled. “All of us were taken away from my mother, and I was put in a camp. I saw people killed every day and I kept praying to God to help me escape.”
After two years of enslavement, Ly escaped, returning to her village and her mother. Ly eventually arrived alone in America in 1982. At first, she reached out to the community to survive. Now she is reaching out to heal, and thrive.
With 19,998 Cambodian residents (according to the 2010 U.S. Census), Long Beach holds the largest population of Cambodians outside of that country. Yet finding a way to help survivors like Ly, and the Cambodian community at large, has often proved difficult.
“Due to the trauma experienced, 62 percent of Cambodian adults live with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and many survivors still have nightmares, panic attacks, headaches, stomach aches and insomnia,” said Susana Sngiem, interim executive director of the United Cambodian Community (UCC). “The trauma is then passed along to their children, and often parents do not know how to cope with their stress or understand that they need to care for themselves in order to take care of their children.”
Wanting to make a difference among fellow Cambodians in their local neighborhoods, Ly and other Best Start Central Long Beach members recently attended a three-day symposium, entitled "Trauma, Healing and Resiliency: The Healing Fields”. The inaugural event brought together survivors, professionals and trauma experts to discuss a multi-cultural integrated/holistic care approach, in order to help nurture those affected by the Khmer Rouge devastation.
"The symposium encouraged our community to voice their opinions to help the new generation, so the children and their families can have better lives," said Ly, who serves as a parent-coach supervisor for the Best Start Welcome Baby program at St. Mary’s Medical Center.
"Having heard Sithary’s story and experiences, I have only deep respect and admiration for her strength and resilience,” said First 5 LA Program Officer Alfredo Lee. “It’s fundamental that we can continue to support leaders like Sithary to continue in this very important work of healing and community building."
Ly plans to take the information she has gained from the symposium to assist other parents in participating in this kind of holistic approach, while also advocating for more therapeutic and mental health services.
“When I started in Best Start as a parent representative, my daughter Rithchtevy was 3,” explained Ly. “She is 8 now, and I continue to stay with Best Start for all of these years to raise the awareness of my community’s needs, and to also support the Cambodian families to get involved and work towards better health outcomes for their children.”
As for her own psychological recovery as a survivor, she says she has come a long way in her healing process by sharing her story with others, going to church and helping one family at a time.
"I want to take care of my family and, most of all, my mother," she said. "One day, I just said to myself, 'I want to be a happy person,' and I accepted that, and it's changing my life. It helps me and my family heal."
Below is a list of resources for services to Cambodian and Asian Americans in Long Beach: