Cambodians entered the United States as refugees after a group of Cambodian Communists named Khmer Rouge, led by the French-educated Pol Pot, won a civil war that had raged from March 1970 to April 1975 and proceeded to rule the country with extraordinary brutality. In power from April 17, 1975, to January 7, 1979, they destroyed all the major institutions in the country. An estimated 1.7 million people out of an estimated total population of 7.9 million died from executions, hunger, disease, injuries, coerced labor, and exposure to the elements. The refuge-seekers came in three waves: (1) just before the Khmer Rouge takeover, (2) during the regime’s existence, and (3) after the regime was overthrown. Some former Khmer Rouge personnel, who had escaped to Vietnam because they opposed Pol Pot’s extremist ideology and savage practices, returned in late December 1978, accompanied by 120,000 Vietnamese troops, to topple the government of their former comrades. A second civil war then erupted along the Thai-Cambodian border pitting the rump Khmer Rouge against two groups of non-communist combatants. Though fighting among themselves, all three groups opposed the new Cambodian government that was supported and controlled by Vietnam. When hundreds of thousands of Cambodians, along with Laotians and Vietnamese, showed up at the Thai-Cambodian border to seek refuge in Thailand, the Thai government and military did not welcome them. Thailand treated the Cambodians especially harshly for reasons related to the Thai officials’ concerns about the internal security of their country.
Almost 158,000 Cambodians gained entry into the United States between 1975 and 1994, mainly as refugees but with a smaller number as immigrants and “humanitarian parolees.” Cambodian ethnic communities sprang up on American soil, many of them in locations chosen by the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement. By the time the 1990 U.S. census was taken, Cambodians could be found in all fifty states. The refugees encountered enormous difficulties adapting to life in the United States. Only about 5 percent of them, mostly educated people from the first wave of refugees who came in 1975 and who, therefore, did not experience the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge era, managed to find white-collar jobs, often serving as intermediaries between their compatriots and the larger American society. About 40 to 50 percent of the Cambodian newcomers who arrived in the second and third waves found employment in blue-collar occupations. The rest of the population has relied on welfare and other forms of public assistance. A significant portion of this last group is composed of households headed by women whose fathers, husbands, or sons the Khmer Rouge had killed. It is they who have had to struggle the hardest to keep themselves and their children alive. Many women had to learn to become the main bread winners in their families even though they had never engaged in wage labor in their homeland. Large numbers of refugees have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder but have received very little help to deal with the symptoms. Some children, lacking role models, have not done well academically and dropped out of school. Others have joined gangs. Despite myriad difficulties, Cambodians in the United States are determined to resuscitate their social institutions and culture that the Khmer Rouge had tried to destroy during their reign of terror. By reviving Cambodian classical dance, music, and other performing and visual arts, and by rebuilding institutions, particularly Buddhist temples, they are trying valiantly to transcend the tragedies that befell them in order to survive as a people and a culture.