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Behind the lens: Art and identity for Cambodian-American girls in Seattle

Behind the lens: Art and identity for Cambodian-American girls in Seattle

'HAIR' - Nikki Leng, 12, whose family came from Phnom Penh, models for a shot.

Thirteen girls between 12 and 16 years old bounce around the art studio on the first

floor of the Seattle Art Museum taking pictures of each other with borrowed cameras

and sitting at worktables to write out personal statements that will accompany the


It seems like a typical American after-school art program, but there is a key difference:

the girls in this room are all children of refugees who fled the killing fields of

the Khmer Rouge. As such, the art they make reflects not only the dangers of growing

up poor in Seattle's crime-ridden public housing projects, but also the difficulties

of grappling with the echoes of a genocidal war two decades and half a world away.

The girls are members of an outreach program specifically for Cambodian girls called

HERS (the name is short for the idyllic-sounding Helping Each Other Reach the Sky).

On this day HERS has matched the girls with two local photographers, Shane Carpenter

and Nancy Froehlich, and local writer Matt Rizzo in order to take pictures and write

about themselves.

The portrait-taking project is timed to coincide with the museum's opening of an

exhibition of pictures of women by renowned photographer Annie Liebowitz. Taking

portraits of each other may seem like an easy task, but these girls, as Cambodian-American

teenagers, often lead complicated lives in difficult circumstances.

Cambodians in Seattle, most of whom came to America as refugees in the 1980s, suffer

first and foremost from economic problems. Because of the Khmer Rouge's brutal campaign

against intellectuals, most of those who survived to make it to America two decades

ago had rural backgrounds that fit poorly with the urban areas they settled.

Karrin Kallendar, a mental health specialist who works with the program, says that

90 percent of the parents of girls that the HERS program has worked with cannot speak

English, while 85 percent are literate in only their own language.

The work that is available to those parents - often janitorial work for the men

and sewing work for the women - leaves most families unable to break out of poverty,

even after 20 years in America.

There are other legacies of the war: mental illness - mainly post-traumatic stress

disorder - afflicts up to 80 percent of Cambodian refugees.

"These kids come in and say that they're so sick and tired of hearing their

parents having headaches, and their parents staring at walls, their parents repeating

things," says Warya Pothan, a Cambodian-American who founded the HERS program

seven years ago.

It was Pothan's experience as a patient care coordinator for Harborview Medical Center,

which serves many of Seattle's poorest communities, that first made her realize the

need to help Cambodian girls get jobs and stay out of trouble.

Pothan found that many Cambodian women who came to Harbor-view for mental health

services had teenage daughters who were falling behind in school, having difficulty

getting good after-school jobs, and getting in trouble with the law. She began the

HERS program by focusing on giving the girls job skills. Although employment is still

a priority, Pothan says she came to realize that the girls' problems stemmed mainly

from the generational and cultural conflicts at home.

"Their parents were raised in the poorest country in the world," says Pothan.

"But the girls now live in the wealthiest, and the parents consider them lucky."

HERS participants study the work of American photographer Annie Liebowitz.

The conflicts come when the parents expect the girls, most of whom were born in the

US, to follow strict Cambodian ideas about what teenage girls should do. While most

American girls have a great deal of discretion over their free time, Cambodian-American

girls are largely expected to stay home and cook, clean and take care of siblings.

Similarly, while dating is a integral part of American adolescence, it is completely

foreign to the Cambodian refugees - it is not unusual for girls in the HERS program

to tell of their mothers calling them prostitutes just because a boy called the house

asking for them.


To begin working through some of those problems, Pothan makes the parents attend

parenting classes as a prerequisite of having their daughters in the program. But

she has also brought counselors like Kallendar to lead sessions where the girls can

talk openly about their lives among each other.

"Here they can talk about sex and conflict, which they can't do at home,"

says Kallendar.

As the final component of the program, Pothan has hired student supervisors who are

mainly Cambodian girls who managed to beat the odds and go on to college.

Leakhena Leng, 21, was an early participant in HERS when she was a teenager growing

up in a violent neighborhood. Now a student supervisor with HERS, Leng says that

the program made a huge difference in her life.

"There is so much pressure and responsibility inside the family for Cambodian

girls," she says, "especially with mental health. When my mother was diagnosed

with post-traumatic stress disorder, (the program) really helped me be able to talk

about it."

Leng is a junior studying English at the University of Washington, and she credits

Pothan with opening her eyes to even the possibility of higher education.

"It was always kind of scary - I wasn't really sure about college or anything.

There weren't any good Cambodian role models that I had to look up to."

In addition to educational role models, the program has tried hard to bring positive

exposure to Cambodian culture to the girls. They have studied the ancient civilizations

of Cambodia and even taken dance lessons from Moly Sam, a traditional Cambodian Celestial

Dancer who lives in the Pacific Northwest.

Unfortunately for the HERS program, however, the bur-eaucracy's will to provide this

kind of sanctuary for the Cambodian girls may be shrinking. Despite the apparent

success of the government-sponsored HERS program - Pothan says that all of the nearly

100 graduates of the program have gone on either to college or to hold steady jobs

after high school - the program's funding is in danger of being cut. Seattle mayor

Paul Schell has yet to forward the program's budget request to the city council,

and it is unclear whether the program will be able to operate past 2001.

On this day at least, the girls are finding their voice regardless - their portraits

of each other capture some of the same powerful emotions as Liebowitz's more famous

pictures do. On her way through the gallery at the end of the day, Linda Rim, 15,

nods in approval at an older woman pictured in an oversized Liebowitz print.

"She's strong," says Rim assuredly. "She survived."


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