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PTSD from Cambodia's killing fields affects kids who were never there

Fellowship Story Showcase

PTSD from Cambodia's killing fields affects kids who were never there

Picture of Greg Mellen

As Cambodian-Americans and children of refugees, Sin and Em carry a difficult legacy. Many must deal with the fallout from a damaged generation of survivors who are now raising families, still struggling to fit into a new culture and inadvertently passing along much of the pain for their children to sift through.

This article is part of a six-part series that looks at the effects of PTSD on members of the Cambodian community:

Part 1: Killing Fields Legacy

Part 2: PTSD from Cambodia's Killing fields affects kids who were never there

Part 3: At 92, she's still haunted by Khmer Rouge atrocities in Cambodia

Part 4: SAM KEO: Soul-searching helps win battle in mind 

Part 5: ROTH PRUM: Genocide's horrors still haunt dreams

Part 6: ARUN VA: Narrow escape from becoming a killer

Long Beach Press-Telegram
Sunday, April 22, 2012

LONG BEACH -- Wilson High student Kunthea "Meme" Sin often feels lonely. Amanda Em, a Poly High student, sometimes wondered what was wrong with her parents and why they acted as they did.

Sure, these could be the stories of almost any teenagers growing up through history.

The difference is that as Cambodian-Americans and children of refugees, Sin and Em carry a difficult legacy.

Many must deal with the fallout from a damaged generation of survivors who are now raising families, still struggling to fit into a new culture and inadvertently passing along much of the pain for their children to sift through.

Much of Long Beach's Cambodian population escaped from the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime that left about 2 million dead between 1975 and 1979. Virtually all of those survivors witnessed and suffered through unimaginable atrocities. They carry invisible scars and struggle with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

And their children have borne trauma passed on from parents. They experience symptoms that can range from extreme anxiety to emotional numbness, from violence to withdrawal, from hyper-arousal and activity to clinical depression.

"My parents gambled and drank," Em said. "I just thought they were being crazy Asians."

Em has since learned that her family displays many classic symptoms of PTSD.

"(My parents) were always stressed out," Em said. "Even when they had nothing to be stressed about."

PTSD passed along

Sam Keo, a genocide survivor and licensed clinical psychologist, says kids who grow up around the disorder can't help but be affected.

"It's not genetic, but if you hang around someone with PTSD, you're going to get something," he said.

That something is called "intergenerational transmission of trauma."

Sin has inherited characteristics of PTSD from her experiences.

"I don't get over stuff," she says. "I find it hard to stay focused on the things I need to do."

"It gets passed down, all the symptoms," Em said of PTSD.

The transmission often displays itself in three ways. Some kids mimic and model the behaviors of their elders and fall into the same traps and patterns.

Others become caretakers of their parents, often at young ages.

Em says she has had to miss school and other functions to take her parents to appointments to provide translation and fill out forms.

Both these groups are prone to depression and have difficulties with relationships.

A third group, mostly boys, becomes aloof or rebellious.

"They have more problems than the others," Keo said.

Youths from the final group can be prone to crime and gang activity and, in worst cases, can become psychotic, according to Keo.

The symptoms may attenuate or lessen over the generations, but they rarely go away completely.

Seng Kem, 33, was born in the refugee camps and came of age in Long Beach. His experiences aren't much different from those of today's youth. Like today's teens, he suffered the sting of racism and couldn't really turn to his parents for help.

Seng Kem found his release through sports.

"It kept me out of trouble. I know that for a fact," says Seng Kem, who is now a policeman. "A lot of kids went the other way because they didn't have that structure and they had to band together to stay safe. That could have easily happened to me. Easily."

Youth study

Sin and Em are part Khmer Girls in Action, a teenage advocacy group in Long Beach. Recently KGA, under the supervision of UCLA, conducted a wellness survey of about 500 Khmer youth in Long Beach.

The study highlighted some troubling trends. It showed that nearly half the youth displayed symptoms of depression, including feelings of loneliness, fear and insomnia. Also, 56 percent of the Cambodian youth felt discriminated against in jobs, education and language access.

"Many people have been racist toward me," said Lyiah Kai, a Poly High student. "I felt scared and alone."

Other academic studies show high instances of anger between Cambodian-American youth and parents and high stress among young Cambodian-American women.

Suely Ngouy, who is now a policy advocate for Asian Pacific American Legal Center, said she grew up not understanding why she felt the way she did.

"With me there was always a feeling of sadness," said Ngouy, whose parents survived the genocide. "It was normal to be sad and that's an emotion obviously that affects mental health."

Many males she knew reacted differently and became resentful and easily attracted to gangs, she said.

Khmer Girls in Action is an ongoing success story. It gives girls such as Sin, Em and Kai a place to gather with those who have similar stories, but they also are actively involved in changing conditions for those who follow.

The group is currently in the process of organizing wellness centers in local high schools where kids can get help and counseling.

Communication is key

Many experts agree that knowledge is power in the fight against PTSD. And youths are often desperate to learn about and better understand their parents and their experiences.

"I try to get them to talk about (the genocide) but it's so taboo to talk about," Em said. "But we have to deal with it."

Keo says it is vital for parents to share their stories with their children, although he cautions that parents need to wait until their children are old enough to understand.

"We hear a lot of youth say they wish their parents would be more engaged or available," Ngouy says.

Many Cambodian parents seem to be forever silently stuck in 1975.

"They're not letting go of the past. They still feel they're victims," Seng Kem says. "They're not doing anything to get out of the `I'm a victim' mode."

Writing memoirs

Some survivors have taken to writing down their experiences for posterity and for their children.

Keo recently published a book titled "Out of the Dark, Into the Garden of Hope" about his experiences.

Kimberly Ier Kem was only 6 when the Khmer Rouge rose to power, but realizes her early life had a profound effect on the rest of her life.

A social worker with children, Kem's book, "Sad Life Events From My Native Soil," came out of an assignment in college to write a paper about overcoming traumatic stress.

"Not many Cambodian people are willing to talk about it," Kimberly Kem said. "At least I can let my children know what happened. It's good to have it on paper and share."

It took Keo nearly 20 years to write his book. He said at times it was so painful he would sometimes break down after each paragraph.

The writing of memoirs doesn't necessarily remove the pain, but at least it helps open the door to move on.

Keo says understanding is the most important thing one can offer.

"When you see the children of these refugees, perhaps already born in this country, please think that they too have some of these invisible scars," Keo says. "They witness their parents' reactions and internalize these as if they were their own. The horrors of war do not end with the refugees, but they continue to be lived by their children and their children's children."


The following are some of the local organizations that can provide services to Cambodian and Asian Americans.

Pacific Asian Counseling Services


Long Beach Office, 3530 Atlantic Ave.



Asian Pacific Islander Older Adults Task Force

Cambodian Seniors Nutrition Program

McBride Park, 1550 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave.


Online: a3

E-mail: info@a3

Families in Good Health Program

St. Mary Medical Center

411 E. 10 th St., Ste. 207 Long Beach


Cambodian Association of America


2390 Pacific Ave., Long Beach


United Cambodia Community


2201 East Anaheim St. Long Beach


Khmer Girls in Action


1355 Redondo Ave # 9, Long Beachpp p

Khmer Parent Association


3200 East 29 th St., Long Beach

Asian Pacific American Legal Center


800-867-3126 (Khmer hotline)

1145 Wilshire Blvd # 200, Los Angeles