From Refugee To Role Model: A Cambodia Town Story

Community organizer and author Marin Yann stands next to the Cambodia Town mural in Long Beach. | Photo: Elson Trinidad

There are immigrant stories, comprised of themes of hope, opportunity, and dreams.

And then there are refugee stories, where hope is drowned out by fear, where the only opportunity is for survival, and instead of chasing dreams, it's running away from nightmares.

Long Beach's Cambodian American community is the largest in the United States with a population of some 50,000, but only a small fraction of them are actual immigrants. The vast majority have refugee origins, stemming from the brutal rule of the Khmer Rouge, which ran Cambodia from 1975 to 1979 and killed an estimated two million of its own people in a genocide consisting of executions, famine, and disease. It was all in the name of the Khmer Rouge's social engineering programs, which forced a nationalist, isolationist form of agrarian communism upon the country. Death was a certainty to those who didn't -- or couldn't -- comply. The regime was the topic of the Oscar-nominated 1984 motion picture "The Killing Fields," which brought that era to Western mainstream consciousness for the first time.

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The community, largely based in Long Beach's Cambodia Town district along Anaheim Street, has thousands of refugee stories; not very many have been told, and much less heard or even understood by the white, African American, Latino, and other Asian residents of "The International City." But Long Beach resident and community organizer Marin Yann has decided, after an entire decade of writing about it, to tell his.

Yann's recently released book, "The Last One," details his childhood, living under the Khmer Rouge and his accounts of survival.

"I wrote the book because I was tired of answering everyone's questions," Yann said, half-jokingly.

Yann is "probably around 42" years of age: His birth records were lost or destroyed by the Khmer Rouge. But his greatest loss was being orphaned from his own family. As a child, his mother died of disease, his sister eventually vanished and his father "was invited by the Khmer Rouge to build a water canal, and never came back," Yann said.

Yann described his relationship with the Khmer Rouge as "complicated." Though they killed his family, they spared Yann his own life.

"I was 'adopted' by the Khmer Rouge," said Yann. "They could have just killed me. But they decided to raise me instead."

In 1979, the Khmer Rouge fell to their enemy -- The Vietnam People's Army (the same ones who fought against U.S. forces in the Vietnam War), and Yann, after a period begging and stealing on his own, was joined with an adoptive family, one of several over the years, and fled Cambodia to refugee camps in Thailand and The Philippines.

His book ends before his arrival to the United States. But the unwritten sequel is no less worth telling.

An Australian American named Luke who spoke fluent Cambodian from working there in the 1960s sponsored Yann and his adoptive family through a church group and brought them to Salt Lake City, Utah in the mid-1980s.

For Yann and his adoptive family, migration and relocation were already the norm. From Utah, the family moved to San Diego, and again across the country to Boston, home of the second largest Cambodian enclave in the U.S.

But when Yann heard stories about Long Beach, and its large Cambodian community, he headed west in 1991 with a roommate who started a music company that sold reproduced Cambodian records and tapes in compact disc format.

"We drove across the country, with a U-Haul trailer," Yann recalled. "It was also my frist time driving anything."

Yann enrolled himself at Long Beach City College, where he unsuccessfully studied architecture, and then criminal law, which became valuable in the early 1990s, as Cambodian gang violence and ethnic tensions were at an all-time high, and Yann became a liaison between the Cambodian community and the Long Beach Police Department. He later worked for the city of Long Beach doing community development and served his own community as a youth and family counselor for a Cambodian non-profit social service organization.

Today, Yann holds a master's degree in public administration and educates high school youth on the dangers of substance abuse. He said that underage drinking is a serious problem in the Cambodian community, among many.

"Cambodians are the most-exposed [group] to violence," said Yann, with many dealing with psychological trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder. He also added that gun violence within the community is another serious issue, even today.

He also saw education, or the lack of it, as a big concern in the community. Unlike other communist regimes, the Khmer Rouge actually banned schools and all educational institutions. Educated people, and even those who appeared so, were considered enemies of the state, and were executed. The repercussions of that still linger today.

"We were down to the ground already," Yann said. "Getting back up is difficult."

But Yann sees hope in the future of his community, having grown from a single Cal State Long Beach student who arrived here in 1961. He pointed to the ubiquity of Cambodian-owned donut shops across Southern California as a testament to the success of an acquired-skills propagated within the community. And while driving down the street, Yann pointed to Cambodian and African American youths hanging out with each other, illustrating the relaxation of ethnic tensions, and the greater acceptance of Cambodians in the city.

A public art sculture at a Metro Blue Line station in Long Beach, written in English, Spanish and Khmer. | Photo: Elson Trinidad

Yann and I have lunch at a Cambodian restaurant on Pacific Coast Highway. Upon entering, he exchanges greetings with the waiter, and a middle-aged Cambodian woman waves at him and briefly converses with him in English. He takes out a copy of his book for her to pore over. Toward the end of our lunch, he excuses himself to visit another table, where a professor at nearby Cal State Long Beach is eating. Later on, he told me that he's being invited to speak at the professor's anthropology class. Yann's cellphone rings on a couple of occasions, mainly inquiries for his book launch event this week.

Life is busy and chaotic for Yann these days, but he seems to enjoy the momemtum his book is building, or at least has acclimated to his role already.

I asked him if he, a person who appears well-connected, and has already impacted the lives of many, considers himself a community leader. He humbly brushed off that notion.

"I'm just a person in the community, trying to survive," Yann said.

"I don't know what classifies being a 'leader.' It's just a title. From someone of my background, I accomplished a lot. I could have gotten into gangs -- people have tried to sell guns and drugs to me. I ended up studying. I took the opposite route. I got good jobs. I can set a good example, I can be a role model, not a 'leader.'"

More on Cambodia Town: Rapping the Message of Long Beach's Cambodia Town

About the Author

Elson Trinidad is the Managing Editor of KCET's 50th Anniversary website and writes the "Transpacific Routes" and "Concrete and Chaparral" columns on KCET's blogs.
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