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Last updated: May 2019

Cambodian Society in the United Kingdom
- This Community- Acknowledgements

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Proclaim - Dr Phalla Sambath Heng

The Cambodian Community in the United Kingdom
For the Conference “Cambodia: Moving towards a Better Future”. Refugees Studies Programme, University of Oxford, 5th June 1999

1. Abstract

The Cambodian community in the United Kingdom is relatively very small (about 800 persons) and scattered all over the country. A few of us have started off our life in the early 70’s as students or as members of the Cambodian Embassy Staff, caught out by the political change in Cambodia in 1975. About 60 of us became refugees then, not by choice but by circumstances. We have never thought or dreamed of living permanently in the United Kingdom, let alone to be here today – perhaps the fate or the karma of what we have done in our past life.

The majority of the community arrived in the early 80’s on the basis of family reunion with the early settlers or via the Charity Organisations from the refugee camps in Thailand; there were also some from Vietnam. They have all experienced ‘the Killing Fields’ traumas.

Life in the UK, for all of us, was not as easy as it looks. On the one hand, we would like to preserve our culture, and on the other, we would like to normalise our life, to adapt and to adopt to the new society. Unfortunately, the two cultures are in contrast to each other. For some, we have nightmares of what we have come across during the bad time, either through personal experience or learning about the loss of the parents or brothers and sisters. We have, however, learned a lot from that experience and we are very proud to say that we have weathered that stormy episode quite well. This, in many way, has made us even more resilient than we had anticipated.

2. Cambodian Society in the United Kingdom (CASUNIK)

CASUNIK is the strength of the community, thanks to the few core active members who always take the Cambodian interest at heart. The main events, organised by CASUNIK, are the Cambodian New Year in Mid April and the Pchum Ben ceremony in September/October (also election date of the new Executive Committee Members). Both events are social and religious (Buddhist). We have also organised to teach the Cambodian mother tongue language and the Khmer classical dance, which provides a lot of appreciable interests to our youth.

CASUNIK is a non-political organisation whose aim is to advance the education of the public in the United Kingdom about any aspects of Cambodia, including the people, history, culture and tradition. CASUNIK was formally formed in October 1979, during the Buddhist Phchum Ben festival, from the ashes of the Student’s Association of the Khmer Republic (SAKR) and some of the Embassy staff, and their families who were left stranded in the United Kingdom due to the political upheaval in 1975.

Following the discussion with the British Council for Refugees (BCR) and with the help of the National Council for Voluntary Organisation (NCVO), CASUNIK took a step further to become a full Charity Organisation in 1984. CASUNIK registered with the Charity Commission under the Charity Act 1960 (registration no 292074).

CASUNIK remains as a registered charity organisation to the present day. With the elected Members of the Executive Committee, CASUNIK has worked extremely well among the Cambodian and British communities at large, in preserving and exchanging cultural and other mutual interests amongst its members in the United Kingdom.

We have organised the fund raising to help the people and to purchase some traditional musical instruments in Cambodia.

3. Student’s Association of the Khmer Republic (SAKR)

SAKR, with a non-political status, was formed in March 1971 by a group of 12 Cambodian students who came to further their postgraduate engineering studies in the United Kingdom, under the Colombo Plan Scholarship administered by the British Council. It was conceived at Colchester, whilst they were studying their English language prior to joining the appropriate Universities for their appropriate fields of study. SAKR hold their first General Meeting at the Cambodian Embassy in St John’s Wood, London - Thanks to the Cambodian Embassy who had put so much effort and interest in the Association.

I was elected as the first President of the Association.

Throughout their year, SAKR had produced the bulletins as well as organised some outings and the traditional Khmer New Year ceremonies, which were always held at the Cambodian Embassy in London - the good old days!

SAKR was dissolved in late 1975 (in Manchester), following the take over by the Khmer Rouge regime in April 1975.

4. Life in the Early Years

The political change in Cambodia in 1975 really caught us unprepared. The Cambodian Embassy was closed; there was nowhere to renew our Cambodian passport and nowhere to seek for advice. To most of us at that time, the grant and salary were no longer there, and worst of all we were not allowed to work since we were on the visitor’s visa. Neither were we entitled to unemployment assistance or to benefits based on pay-related social insurance contributions. This was, partly due to the ignorance on our part of not knowing the Social Security System, and partly due to the fact that we did know where to get help. The British Council who was then the Administrator of the Scholarship did not provide any assistance or help. Were they not interested or they just did not want to know – who knows? Somehow, we managed to survive!

I remember very well about the day when I did go to the Police Station in Manchester, to report about the change of our status and that we were not able to renew our passport. This was a routine requirement for an ‘Alien’ with the ‘green’ Certificate of Registration. The advice from the Officer was ‘ Write to the Home Office and explain your case. They are very sympathetic; after all you did not illegally enter the United Kingdom ’.

My eldest daughter, the first Cambodian girl born in the UK, was born 3 weeks after the Khmer Rouge took control of the country.

We, our community, may be small but collectively we are very strong. We listen and stay very close to each other, throughout the years.

5. Returning Home

Some of us decided to return back to Cambodia to search for their families and their loved ones that they have left behind. They did not want to go, but they thought that hopefully they would be accepted by the new Regime, and there was some small chance of finding their relatives. After all, we have been asked to return back to serve the country after the bloody civil war. Obviously, the inevitable did happen - they all ended up in losing their lives; none of them had survived. How wrong we were?

6. Settlement of the Cambodian in the UK

After the hard initial start, those of us who stayed behind had learned to cope with the situation. Some of us had to abandon their studies, whilst the others were fortunate enough to have the Universities helping them to complete the studies. We later applied for refugees status and began seeking employment.

Life went on, they started to get married, one by one, among the members of this small community, as well as to other nationalities.

The second group of Cambodian refugees arrived in the early 80’s. They were a little more fortunate than the first group in starting their new life in a strange environment. They had been looked after by the Charity Organisations who brought into the country, and/or from their relatives who have already settled over here. However, all of them had gone through the experience of the Killing Field, which none of us would not like to go through.

7. Primary Schooling

Before they left the refugees camp in Thailand, some parents had reduced the age of their children, normally by 5 years, in the believe that the children can have good education in catching up the lost time during the war. It was quite usual and legal in Cambodia to do just that, at one time. Unfortunately, it does not work over here, just imagine a 16 years old child sitting and learning next to an 11 years old child! They soon realised that.

For the children who were born here, there were not much of problems. Sometimes, it was very emotional and hard for us as parents to answer to the children’s question, when they asked about the where about of their grand parents.

8. Secondary Schooling
It was extremely hard to catch up for the children who went direct onto the secondary school. The parents could not help because of the English language as well as the different education system. Moreover, they had lost the latest stage of the primary school life. Some of them managed to pass the GCSE and the ‘A’ Level examination, through their sheer determination and intelligence.

9. University

With the exception of the students who came to the United Kingdom in the early 70’s to do the postgraduate studies, only the students who pass the GCES ‘A’ level examination in the UK have been admitted to go to the university.

The younger generation, whether they were born in Cambodia or were born in the UK, have done very well at the University. They have succeeded in obtaining their qualifications with the First degree as well as Master degree and the PhD degree.

Perhaps due to their hard experience in life, the parents are striving to encourage their children to work hard for their education.

10. Religion

Most of the Cambodian in the United Kingdom are Buddhist. Apart from the celebration of the Cambodian New Year (in April) and the Phchum Ben (in October), as mentioned above, some of us have also been to various British Buddhist Monasteries:

· Amaravati Monastery, Great Gaddesden, Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire

· Aruna Ratanagiri Buddhist Monastery, Harnham, Belsay, Northumberland

· Cittaviveka Chithurst Buddhist Monastery, Chithurst, Petersfield, Hampshire

· Hartridge Buddhist Monastery, Upottery, Honiton, Devon.

Obviously, some of our country fellowmen are practicing Christianity as well as other religions.

11. Contrast of the Cultures

It is hard enough for us as the first generation, who were born and bred in Cambodia, to adapt and adopt our life to the new and strange culture. To make the matter more complicated, we were not amused when the children told us that they have their girlfriend or boyfriends. There was nothing wrong in that but the words ‘girlfriend and boyfriend’ did not exist in our Cambodian vocabulary, let alone the Cambodian dictionary, in our time, of course. It took us quite sometime to accept the fact – we can now sit back and laugh, at hindsight but not then. It took my wife 2 months to overcome the shock when our daughter, proudly, came and told us that she had a boyfriend. We did not tell her off or force her to stop, but just walk upstairs/downstairs. At hindsight, what was the heck of it all about?

12. Marriage

The spouses of the Cambodian living in the UK have come from over the world – multinational: English, Scottish, Irish, Welsh, Indian, Taiwanese, French, Polish, Italian, and others as well as Cambodian, of course.

There is still some existence in the arranged marriage (but not forcibly) within the younger generation who was born in Cambodia and came with their parents or relatives to live in the United Kingdom.

However, there is none from the first generation of the Cambodian children who were born in the UK. They are now in their 20’s and are just about to settle down and start their families.

13. Politics

None of the Cambodian living in the United Kingdom is actively involved with the British politics, locally and nationally. However, some of them have very strong bond with the Cambodian politics. Fortunately, they never show their full colour into the ring, except those who did go back home.

14. Languages

Obviously, Khmer is still the communication language within the community. However, it has been corrupted to the Khmenglish or Khmanglais, in a similar way to the Franglais. It is rather sad to see the younger generation who was born and bred in the UK (including my own children - no exception) does not speak our mother tongue language.

15. Social and Welfare

There is a very deep concern among the Cambodian community living in the United Kingdom. We all know that we are not getting any younger.

The elderly people need someone to look after. In Cambodia, their sons or daughters (and/or in-laws) would look after them. But over here, we are all aware of the problem and practicality of it.

Also, perhaps due to the scar of the Khmer Rouge regime, there were 3 Cambodian committed suicide and 4 with mentally illness – a very high percentage for a community of this size. CASUNIK is seriously looking to find solutions for both problems.

Our Community would only be so pleased, if you, as reader of this article, may be able to provide any suggestions and generosity to help us solving the problems. It will, obviously, be very much appreciated.

16. General
The view that has been mentioned in this article is expressed from my personal experience and from what I have seen, heard and known from all sources. It does not represent all of the aspects of the Cambodian community living in the United Kingdom.

We know that each of us is unique, but the Cambodian living in the UK is more unique than most.

I hope that the above would be of some useful to whom it may concern.

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