The first significant wave of Cambodian refugees emigrated to the U.S. in 1975. Roughly158,000 Cambodians gained entry through 1994, mainly as refugees of war and internal conflict. Cambodian communities sprang up, many in locations chosen by the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement. According to the 2010 federal census Southeast Asians made up about a fifth of Lowell’s population. The city is home to the second largest population of Cambodians in the U.S. after Long Beach, California.
Lowell and the Growth of a Cambodian Community
Robert Forrant and Christoph Strobel
Note: This essay is excerpted from a chapter in Ethnicity in Lowell prepared for the Lowell National Historical Park in 2011. Citations and further reading can be found there.
Since the 1970s, Lowell has attracted its fair share of newcomers. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 22.1 percent of Lowell’s population in the year 2000 was foreign-born. Just as the presence of immigrants in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries altered and influenced the city, the latest wave of arrivals, this time mainly from refugee camps in Thailand, is changing the face of Lowell. These New Lowellians are shaping and enriching the city with their unique and diverse presence. They have built and joined religious institutions, started businesses, are part of the regional labor force, and contributors to the regional economy. They are participants in and creators of cultural, social, and community organizations and institutions.
With the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, the United States has received the most diverse group of immigrants and refugees in its history. This act eliminated the national origin quotas established by the Immigration Act of 1924. The changes opened the U.S. to people from Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa like never before. Hence, and unlike in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when the majority of migrants came from Europe, the latest wave of immigrants comes from the non-western world. These complex developments are part of the broader process of global migration, which is not only occurring in the United States but is taking place the world over.
Cambodians, Vietnamese, and Lao make up over 20 percent of Lowell’s population. Lowell is home to the second largest population of Cambodians in the United States after Long Beach, California. The arrival of Southeast Asians in the U.S. is in large part due to our involvement in wars in Southeast Asia. A significant number of the refugees and immigrants who supported the United States’ effort to contain the expansion of communism in the region.
Cambodia gained its independence from France in 1953, but national economic development remained stagnant. After independence, the country was led by Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who did little to industrialize the country. Instead, he spent most of the nation’s resources on building roads, railways, and a seaport, which had, however, little impact on improving Cambodia’s economic fortunes. Thus, by the 1960s, three- fourths of the country’s population still lived in villages.
Sihanouk pursued a variety of diplomatic strategies throughout the 1950s and 1960s. The war in neighboring Vietnam at that time, a struggle fought for national liberation and complicated by Cold War dynamics, increasingly spilled over that country’s borders. In response to such developments, the Cambodian head of state pursued a complicated balancing act between the conflict’s different power players. In 1970, military leader Lol Nol ousted Sihanouk in a coup supported by the United States. Lol Nol established the Khmer Republic.
Shortly after the overthrow of the Sihanouk government, Cambodia slid into a civil war. During the conflict between a Marxist guerrilla group called the Khmer Rouge and the Lol Nol regime, which received military support from the United States in the form of military hardware, training, and aerial bombardments of communist-held areas, approximately half a million people died. The Khmer Rouge overthrew the Lol Nol government in April of 1975 when they took over the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh. Following the civil war, the Khmer Rouge unleashed a genocidal terror of the worst proportions.
Immediately after gaining control of the capital, the Khmer Rouge ordered an evacuation of the city, forcing people, including the sick and elderly, into the countryside with virtually no opportunity to prepare. In its efforts to create a “classless” society, the Khmer Rouge pursued a brutal agenda. The campaign targeted intellectuals, political and religious leaders, artists, those who resisted the regime, and even many former supporters of the regime who were suspected or alleged to be traitors.
The Khmer Rouge also targeted families – another major pillar of Cambodian society. Forced into horrendous labor conditions often without adequate food supplies, people died from starvation, sheer exhaustion, not to mention the brutal torture and targeted murder that occurred in the country. An estimated 1.5 to 2 million people (out of a population of less than 8 million) died because of the abuses of the regime. The 1978 invasion by Vietnamese forces of Cambodia, and the installment of a new government in the country by the Vietnamese, forced the Khmer Rouge into retreat. Vietnam’s military interference also led approximately 600,000 Cambodians to flee to refugee settlements in Thailand.
Before the mid-1970s, there was only a limited presence of Southeast Asians in Lowell – a reality reflected on the national stage as well. Sucheng Chan, in her book on Cambodians in the United States, estimated that fewer than one thousand Cambodians lived in the United States at that time. Many had arrived here for short-term stays, often related to professional development and in most cases education. This quickly changed, and by the mid-1970s there was a significant increase in the Southeast Asian population.
Sucheng Chan in Survivors: Cambodian Refugees in the United States (2004) writes that there were two major Cambodian migration movements. The first wave came to America from 1975-1977 and included those immediately able to flee the Khmer Rouge. Generally well educated and of upper- and upper-middle-class background this group often spoke French or English, and avoided the horrors of the genocidal killings that occurred in Cambodia. The second wave of refugees occurred after the ouster of the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s. This much larger group of refugees was generally, though not exclusively, from rural backgrounds, less educated, and had experienced the horrors of the genocide. Between 1980 and 1985 the United States took in an average of about 20,000 Cambodian refugees per year. This group, in particular, was least familiar with Western culture and faced a variety of challenges as the people settled into American life.
Initially, the primary factor dictating refugee settlement patterns in the UnitedStates was the government’s policy of dispersing refugees throughout the country. This approach was taken, in part, so as not to financially overburden specific communities, and to encourage the “assimilation” of refugees into American culture. Overall, however, the need for community support and the desire to preserve culture and traditions led to what sociologists and historians describe as a secondary, internal migration among many of the refugee populations. Many Cambodians, for example, decided to move to areas where friends and relatives already lived, areas with a climate more similar to their homeland, or locations with the possibility of more jobs and places for worship. The largest population of Cambodians exists in Long Beach, California, with an estimated peak of 35,000 to 50,000.
According to Chan, the Lowell area possessed three crucial ‘pull factors’ for Cambodians: a Theravada Buddhist temple, the availability of jobs, and refugee-friendl’ government policies. Chan argues that then Massachusetts Governor Dukakis’ wife, Kitty Dukakis, were committed to assisting the victims of the Cambodian genocide. Involved in local initiatives, she traveled to Thailand and lobbied on behalf of Cambodian refugee issues. The state government organized support agencies and provided public assistance programs. During part of the 1980s, the greater Lowell area also experienced the creation of many low-skill manufacturing jobs in the computer business – a period since then referred to as the “Wang boom.” This boom eventually went bust, yet during the times of plenty, many assembly plants readily hired Cambodians looking for work. The third pull factor to Lowell was the presence of a Buddhist temple in North Chelmsford, which was led by an experienced monk from Cambodia.
Family and community were additional significant reasons that attracted Cambodians to Lowell. Cambodian immigrants feel a certain degree of comfort in Lowell because of community and family support networks, as well as the availability of ethnic stores and businesses.
Lives in Lowell
Since their arrival in Lowell, Cambodians have created a community for themselves in the city as well as in the surrounding suburbs. There is a wealth of Cambodian businesses and restaurants in Lowell, centering especially around Pailin and Cupples Square, but they can be found all over the Highlands, as well as in many other parts of the city.
The Southeast Asian population has established various associations that have become major stakeholders in the city. The Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association (CMAA) of Greater Lowell is arguably the largest among them. Founded in 1984 to serve the needs of the growing Cambodian refugee population in Lowell and its surrounding area, the CMAA is governed by a fifteen-member board of directors who are directly elected by the Cambodian community. While the majority of people served by the CMAA are Cambodian, the association also serves Laotian, Vietnamese, Hispanic, and American-born Lowell residents. The CMAA runs and has run a daycare, youth programs, programs for elderly and children with developmental disabilities, civic education, a program for families undergoing intergenerational conflict, and a program for young parents. Other programs the association has sponsored feature reintroducing refugees to agricultural farming through use of local farmlands and a pilot project in fish farming.
Cultural organizations, institutions, and stakeholders are active in the area of cultural preservation. The Angkor Dance Troupe of Lowell, for example, is a nationally recognized dance ensemble. It plays a crucial role in “keeping Khmer traditions alive for future generations” by practicing, performing, and preserving both Cambodian classical and folk dance. A central part of the Angkor Dance Troupe’s mission is to teach dance to a younger generation.
Like previous immigrant and refugee groups settling in Lowell, the Southeast Asian population pays attention to political developments in their countries of origin. While certainly only a minority among Cambodians in the city is involved in their sending society’s political affairs, it is enough of an engagement that Cambodian political parties have active party apparatuses in the city. There is also money sent to close and extended family members and targeted support to development projects, such as educational programs that improve the quality of life in their countries of origin. Here too, similar support was offered ‘back home’ by the Irish, French Canadian, and other immigrant communities in Lowell.