[This article was originally published on pretense.org.]
By Julia Baskin
Youth and Cultural Programs Assistant at the Cambodian Association of Illinois
On a Sunday afternoon in Chicago, 11 Jewish and Cambodian-American youth between the ages of 15 and 22 gathered around a table. An introductory question had been posed to them: Tell us about your family’s story. Responses varied – “I was born in a refugee camp in Thailand.” “My father had to flee Morocco.” “My parents only speak Cambodian.” “We came from Eastern Europe.”As they shared stories of their pasts, a tacit understanding began to form between participants – though their lives in America may appear to differ drastically, what the participants have in common are survival stories which have their roots elsewhere and which are colored by common themes of alienation, struggle, exile and survival.
These youth are from the Cambodian Association of Illinois (CAI) and Or Tzedek, a program of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs. CAI is a social-service community organization based in the Albany Park neighborhood of Chicago. Established in 1976 to support Cambodian refugees and genocide survivors, the organization is a hub for the Cambodian community in Chicago. It is home to the Cambodian American Heritage Museum and the Killing Fields Memorial, as well as programs focused on arts and culture, social justice, health, and education. Or Tzedek is an institute for social justice organized through JCUA at which teenagers engage in year-long, hands-on service projects and learn about Chicago issues from a Jewish social justice perspective.