Globe features Cambodian refugee experiences of resilience and strength amid racial tensions in greater Boston

Shirley Tang, UMass Boston’s professor of Asian American Studies shares data

From 1975–1979, the Khmer Rouge regime committed genocide and other crimes against humanity in Cambodia. An estimated 1.7 million Cambodian people lost their lives. Hundreds of thousands of Cambodian refugees fled violence and civil unrest in the years that followed. Cambodian refugees built supportive communities in Revere, Lynn, and Lowell, MA.

Many communities experience racist, anti-immigrant violence and discrimination across Boston. Southeast Asian refugees and immigrants faced violence from white neighbors and disregard from local police.

UMass Boston professor of Asian American Studies Shirley Tang explained, “A brutal wave of anti-Asian violence followed the migration of Southeast Asian refugees to Massachusetts during the 1980s and 1990s. The dehumanizing consequences of US wars with Asian ‘enemies’ in the Philippines, Korea, Southeast Asia and elsewhere have contributed to the contexts of anti-Asian violence.”

Police did not demonstrate trustworthiness to Cambodian refugees. Hate crimes against Southeast Asian refugees and immigrants were vastly underreported.

In 1979, the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act made it a felony to violate or attempt to violate another person’s civil rights. Community activists and legal advocates like Paul Ratha Yem and Gail Suyemoto sought to ensure this law would protect Cambodian and other Southeast Asian communities in greater Boston. Together, with many other bilingual leaders in the community, Suyemoto and Yem helped educate refugees about their civil rights and protections, offering to call the police on behalf of victims of hate crimes. They also pressured and trained local law enforcement to act.

With outreach, education, and advocacy, hate crime reporting increased. Professor Tang shared that though Asian Americans made up just 4% of the population, nearly 1/3 victims of reported racial violence were of Asian descent in 1987 — not unlike the most recent wave of COVID-19 anti-Asian hate today.

In response to several violent crimes and arsons against Southeast Asian residents, the Coalition on Racial Violence Against Cambodian Americans was established in Revere and organized the first ever Cambodian American demonstration for racial justice in US history on January 10, 1987.

Today, Lowell, MA is home to the second largest Cambodian community in the US. Lynn, MA, next to Revere, has the country’s fifth largest Cambodian American residential population. What is the impact of organizing and anti-Asian violence on Cambodian residents today? Read more in the Boston Globe Magazine piece, ‘I said to myself, “Enough is enough!”’: How a new Lowell city councilor began fighting anti-Asian harassment in the ’80s.

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