A family of Cambodian refugees that came to Bristol after the Khmer Rouge genocide is being featured in an upcoming exhibit at the American Textile History Museum in Lowell, Mass.
The name of the exhibit is "More Than a Number," and it’s a Light of Cambodian Children project. Its goal is to show that Cambodian refugees are "More Than a Number," said Sopheap Theam, a 1998 graduate of Bristol Eastern High School and member of the committee putting the exhibit together.
Theam came to the United States with her family in 1984 sponsored by Zion Lutheran Church in Bristol. She grew up in Bristol and moved away after she graduated from college. She still has family members in the area, who are active at Zion Lutheran, but she moved to Lowell, where her mother lives.
Theam’s interest in her family history peaked recently when she went to Cambodia with her family.
Now 30, she was able to see where she was born, which her parents described to her as "a jungle" when she was growing up.
"It’s very humbling to know where I could have been and what my parents went through," she said.
She said Cambodian refugee parents don’t often tell their children what they went through during the Khmer Rouge regime.
"They kept quiet," she said. "We should know what they went through."
She also saw old photos of her family, some where they’re wearing the numbers they received in prison during the Khmer Rouge regime. Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, a time with mass starvation, executions and forced labor. About 2 million Cambodians died in the "killing fields" of the Cambodian genocide.
"The Khmer Rouge identified prisoners with these numbers," Theap said. "This was their death number. We realized that that’s all we were given, was a number."
Theam and members of her family managed to survive the regime, but after 1979, they were forced out of refugee camps. That was when several churches stepped in and sponsored Cambodian families to come to America.
Theam and her family came to Bristol in 1984. Theam noted that her family’s sponsor from Zion Lutheran, Shirley Dickau, is still at the church, and part of her family is still there.
Dickau said the church started sponsoring families in 1975 and continued to do so until 1990. In all, the church helped about 200 people from Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos come to the United States. They were "a joy for us to sponsor," she said.
Theam’s family’s story of life during the Khmer Rouge and coming to America, along with photographs, will be featured in "More Than a Number."
She said the vision for "More Than a Number" came from Kowith Kret, a Cambodian refugee who now lives in Lowell. Kret is a family friend of Theam’s. The executive director of Light of Cambodian Children is Sayon Soeun, who is Theam’s brother-in-law. Soeun was sponsored by a church in Middletown.
"More Than a Number" will run at the American Textile History Museum, on 491 Dutton St., Lowell, Mass., from April 17 to July 25. Theam said the project committee hopes it will encourage more Cambodians to share their stories, and she asks that Cambodians in Bristol and in Connecticut to submit their stories to the project.
She said this project has been active for 5 years – starting with a grassroots campaign. The committee wants the exhibit to travel the United States and the world to spread its message.
More information on the exhibit and the Light of Cambodian Children can be found at http://reaksmey.org/ or by e-mailing email@example.com.