Sengly Kong is a survivor.
As a 5-year-old boy living in Cambodia in 1975, he watched Khmer Rouge soldiers drag his father out the door of their family home; he never saw his father again. Four years later, on the eve of the Vietnamese invasion, he witnessed the execution of most of his friends while in a forced child labor camp.
Horrific stories like Kong’s are common in Lowell’s large Cambodian community, which was founded by refugees fleeing the indiscriminate killings, disease, and starvation that were hallmarks of life under the merciless rule of Pol Pot, or the chaotic years that followed the Vietnamese invasion. And so to preserve the community’s past and celebrate its progress, a group of activists and educators have erected a monument and “healing garden” in Lowell’s Clemente Park.
The memorials, which are dedicated to those who died or fled their homeland, serve as a way to ensure that generations of American-born Cambodians do not forget the struggles of the past.
The large yellow monument, called a stupa, was dedicated at a ceremony Sunday afternoon. Flanked by two benches decorated with tiles painted by high school students, the monuments’ sides are inscribed with Khmer script representing the “four immeasurables”: loving-kindness, compassion, empathic joy, and equanimity.
“It’s a place of remembrance, dialogue, and meditation,” said Patricia Fontaine, who helped organize the garden’s construction and is an associate professor in the University of Massachusetts Lowell’s Graduate School of Education. “It’s to show the resiliency of the Cambodian community.”
To Kong, 44, the garden is also a tangible sign that the Cambodian community has become a part of Lowell, which is home to the second-largest Cambodian population in the United States.
Lowell has a population of more than 13,000 Cambodians, according to the US Census, though community leaders say the actual number is closer to 30,000. And two years ago, the city officially named the neighborhood near Clemente Park “Cambodia Town.”
“This is our home. This is our country. This is the place we belong. This is the place we need to take care of,” said Kong, chairman of the Cambodia Town Committee. “We’re trying to increase that sense of community and ownership, the sense of belonging. Building this monument is part of that building of community.”
Honorary Consul Sovann Ou, who leads the Cambodian consulate in Lowell, attended the dedication to offer official encouragement on behalf of the Cambodian government. Before the ceremony, at times speaking through tears, Ou recounted how nearly his entire family had been exterminated by the Khmer Rouge regime.
“For me personally, it’s really important to see such a monument in the United States,” he said. “It’s hard to forget, but it’s even harder to talk about.”
The healing garden was funded through a $37,000 grant from UMass. Fontaine, who teaches graduate students preparing to become history teachers, became involved in Lowell’s Cambodian community when a friend who taught at a city high school called.
“She was very worried because she thought a lot of the Cambodian-American kids were getting into gangs,” Fontaine recalled. “She didn’t really know why, but when she pushed them, they said they didn’t really know anything about their history.”
Fontaine said she was surprised, considering witnesses to the Cambodian genocide live in many of the multigenerational Cambodian households in Lowell.
But many members of the older generation are reluctant to speak about those years, she said. Some struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder, others with alcoholism. Mental illness is prevalent but rarely treated because of cultural taboos, Fontaine said.
“These kids are caught between two worlds: a very traditional Cambodian world, and the American world they grew up in,” she said. “They don’t know their relatives, they don’t know their identity, and that’s so important.”
The problem was worsened because the intellectuals, artists, and monks who functioned as the “keepers” of Cambodian culture were especially targeted for killing by the regime, Fontaine said. They were among the 1.7 million to 2 million killed during the genocide, according to the United Nations and researchers.
“I think there’s a little bit of a moral compass that’s skewed, because they were the glue,” she said.
In response, Fontaine and her graduate students developed a 10-week after-school program to help teach Cambodian-American eighth-graders about Cambodian history, including the Khmer Rouge era. Assignments included interviewing family members about their own experiences, a process that helped break down walls in their families, she said.
Kong, who came to the United States as a Fulbright scholar in 1999, is familiar with the difficulties of relating a painful history to the younger generation. He recounted trying to explain to his son, who is 22, how the genocide happened.
“My son asked me, ‘Where were the police, where was the judge, where was the military? Why did they let people do that?’ ” Kong said. “I tried to tell him, because they were the ones who were killing people. But it’s too big a question to answer in one sitting.”