A Change of Guard

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Thursday, 14 April 2016

From Killing Fields to hope, healing

 By Almendra Carpizo
Record Staff Writer

Posted Apr. 12, 2016

Roeum Castleman, 8, of Stockton, holds a poster board with photos of his family during a rally Tuesday on the steps of City Hall to honor and remember the millions of Cambodians affected by the Khmer Rouge. ALMENDRA CARPIZO/THE RECORD

    STOCKTON — Dozens of people of Cambodian descent gathered on the steps of City Hall on Tuesday not only to remember the millions of people who died during the Khmer Rouge regime 40 years ago, but to honor the resiliency of survivors and spread a message of hope.

    The Cambodian community has been eager for Stockton to recognize the horrors of the genocide by the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s, rally organizers said. Savong Lam, with Community Partnership for Families, was first inspired to push for a commemorative week in Stockton following the passing of a state-level resolution a year ago.

    On Tuesday, councilmen Michael Tubbs and Dan Wright presented a proclamation during the City Council meeting declaring April 13-17 as Cambodian Genocide Memorial Week, remembering the Killing Fields of Cambodia where, under despot Pol Pot, some 1.7 million Cambodians are believed to have died.

    This is not just a resolution or event, 35-year-old Raksmey Castleman of Stockton said during a ceremony.

    “This resolution means hope, rejuvenation, strength, peace, empowerment, healing and unity,” she said. “Our people have been through a lot. Today is about honoring the souls who lost their life, honoring and respecting the survivors.”

    Castleman was among the organizers who encouraged Stockton’s Cambodian community to gather prior to the council meeting.

    Sophy Reese said Tuesday’s gathering and proclamation meant hope about the future and what awaits Cambodians and the community at-large.

    “(The proclamation is) heartfelt, and I’m amazed by the turnout and glad it happened, finally, after 40 years,” she said.

    Not only do all Cambodians need to be aware of the genocide that claimed the lives of nearly 2 million of their people, but so does the rest of Stockton, Reese said.

    “To be honest, it feels amazing,” she said. “I grew up in Stockton, and I’ve always known how resilient our people are, but I also feel for the longest time that we’ve lived in the shadows.”

    During the rally, people of all ages held photos of loved ones who had been killed or survived.

    Castleman, who held a framed photo of herself with her parents and siblings at a refugee camp, said the photographs are something Cambodians keep to remember where they come from.

    It was a time when people couldn’t see the end of the tunnel, she said, but now many are here living out their hopes and dreams.

    Several people, including children, held signs that read, “We are business owners.” And “Proud to be Cambodian American.”

    Stockton resident Sophany Bodine, 27, performed a blessing dance to open the ceremony as those in attendance circled around her and watched.

    Stockton council members and Mayor Anthony Silva joined the rally and most spoke about the significance of the proclamation and the impact Cambodians have in the city.

    The reason for the proclamation is so the atrocities that happened are never forgotten, councilman Elbert Holman said. It’s also so the children know what happen, and when life gets tough, they can look back at the resilience of their ancestors and move forward.

    All the Cambodians in attendance have been personally affected by the Khmer Rouge, Reese said. They have parents or grandparents who had to go through labor camps or who fled Cambodia to find a better life.

    “This is a great moment not just for Cambodians, but for the community of Stockton,” she said. “I hope that today brings out more awareness of the genocide and the history of Cambodia and the culture and heritage of those people.”

    — Contact reporter Almendra Carpizo at (209) 546-8264 or acarpizo@recordnet.com. Follow her on Twitter @AlmendraCarpizo.

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