In 1991 I had the opportunity to photograph at Site 2, a sprawling refugee camp along the Thai-Cambodian border. Having seen films, photos, and news reports showing Cambodians only as helpless war refugees, starving victims reaching out for western aid, I was surprised to discover a people deeply concerned with rebuilding and upholding their cultural traditions, and desperate for normalcy after nearly 210 years of chaos and brutality. I was frustrated that in the short time I had access to the camp I was not able to document the vitality I witnessed. But when I returned to the U.S. I found something similar in Chicago’s community of nearly 5,000 Cambodians. Despite the problems common to most immigrant populations, the community was vibrant, flourishing, and attempting to move beyond the refugee experience; at the same time it placed much emphasis on the preservation of language, religion, and culture–the things to which poor immigrants must turn for a sense of stability, identity, and of course joy.

In time, Cambodian culture may be overwhelmed by the forces that surround it. Both here and in Cambodia, western values and notions of development, progress, and consumerism may slowly accomplish what the Khmer Rouge could not. By photographing the ordinary experiences and everyday lives of these Cambodians in their new home, I hope to show them as I have known them, as a joyful and loving people whose cultural pride and traditions have overcome one of the most destructive eras of modern history.

I am indebted to the Cambodian Association of Illinois and encourage anyone who would like to contribute to the community to phone them at 878-7090.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Stuart Isett.