Survey Finds Some Asian American Youth Face Bullying, Economic Insecurity
Phal Sok and his father are seen in a photo from the early 1980s. (Courtesy of Phal Sok)
Sok’s story ― one of confusion, isolation and entry at a young age into a harsh penal system ― is in some ways incredibly common.
His family fled Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge, the notorious Communist group, seized control of the country. The violent regime, led by the dictator Pol Pot, would ultimately bring about the deaths of more than 2 million people as individuals were labeled enemies of the regime or died through starvation, disease or overwork in labor camps. Sok’s own parents were subjected to abuse in labor camps before they escaped, and his father sustained serious injuries from being beaten in the back with a rifle.
Sok spent the first two months of his life in refugee camps before his family relocated to California, settling in Long Beach, which many other Cambodian families also eventually called home. His father, who was disabled as a result of his time in the camps, was unable to work and helped support the family through disability. Sok’s mother left the family when he was 2 years old.
“You come from a country and have no money and are told to survive,” he said. “My parents struggled financially, and a lot of those struggles caused my parents to separate.”
The family lived in poverty, but Sok was used to it. Many Cambodian families around him lived the same way, and countless other Southeast Asian refugee families could relate. Pew notes that in the 10 years following the enactment of the Refugee Act of 1980, the U.S. took in almost 600,000 Southeast Asian refugees amid the humanitarian crisis spurred by the Vietnam War ― a peak in modern refugee waves. (The total number since 1975 is twice that.) These refugees’ lives following resettlement, however, were not given continued attention.
“There’s a lot of support when you immediately come here ― finding them housing right away, getting settled into the neighborhood,” said Katrina Dizon Mariategue, who heads up the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center’s immigration policy and mass incarceration work. “But it’s all short-term remedies.”
We would get called "chinks" and "Chinamen," even though we weren’t even Chinese. Phal Sok
Refugees were often resettled in poorly funded urban centers like Long Beach and Stockton, California, or the Bronx, New York. According to a paper in the Asian American Law Journal, resettlement programs also failed to account for the linguistic and historical differences between Southeast Asian refugees and refugees from other regions. Once in the U.S., these immigrants were mostly left to navigate the new country themselves. It was a process that did not come easily, as the families often arrived with little knowledge of U.S. culture and language.
Moreover, though refugees fled widespread violence in their homelands, many encountered danger once again in their new neighborhoods. In fact, about 70 percent of Cambodian refugees in Long Beach, where Sok lived, reported exposure to violence following their resettlement in the U.S. And at school, these refugee children’s foreign backgrounds made them easy targets for bullying, said Nathaniel Tan, a member of the Asian Prisoner Support Committee who works with many in the Southeast Asian community. They spoke different dialects. They ate “strange” foods. They were from unfamiliar countries. They were poor.
The bullying stings, says Sok.
“We would get called ‘chinks’ and ‘Chinamen,’ even though we weren’t even Chinese,” he said. As the years went by, the bullying got more aggressive. But “we Cambodians stuck together because that’s how we knew we were safe.”
Many kids in Sok’s position had trouble connecting with their parents, who, having fled from places damaged by war and political turmoil, were often dealing with trauma of their own. At the time, Mariategue told HuffPost, mental health resources were sorely lacking for Southeast Asian immigrants, and seeking help was taboo in many of their cultures. Many parents were also juggling work as families attempted to climb out of the widespread poverty in their communities.
“Our family had witnessed some of the horrible things inside the camps ― a lot of beatings ― and had seen a lot of people getting killed,” Sok said. Sok’s father had always been a strong source of support for his son, but he dealt with his own trauma for years following his escape from Cambodia.
“What we found was when refugees got bullied or don’t assimilate into society, they participate in informal economies or informal groups that grant protection or money ― what we know now as gangs.” Nathaniel Tan
Difficult circumstances eventually led many young people down a rough path, Mariategue said. Belonging to families with little economic mobility, and branded outsiders at school, children from these refugee families often felt lost. Many dropped out or were pushed out of school, unable to deal with the effects of trauma or post-traumatic stress disorder in their families. Others dropped out because of the language barrier and the lack of teachers who actually understood their culture. And a significant amount of refugee children found the bullying and isolation unbearable ― so they turned to the streets or elsewhere for help.
“What we found was when refugees got bullied or don’t assimilate into society, they participate in informal economies or informal groups that grant protection or money ― what we know now as gangs,” Tan said. “A lot of the guys that we work with at San Quentin joined gangs because they were picked on for not speaking English, and they needed to join gangs because they needed to protect themselves.”
Some gangs targeted Southeast Asian youth to attract them to join, Tan says. But bullying also led many young men from refugee and immigrant families to form their own organized crime groups, including the notorious Tiny Rascal Gang and the Asian Boyz.
In some ways, these groups became sources of emotional comfort and solace ― a way for alienated teens and young men to connect with a “family” when it seemed their parents couldn’t help them. Finally, they felt they fit in somewhere.
Sok never joined a gang. However, he did turn to the streets after his father’s death from cancer. Left with no strong support at home and unsure how to cope with the tragedy, Sok said, he struggled in classes and was handed school dropout papers soon after, becoming a victim of school pushout. He began regularly getting in trouble with his friends, many of whom were also refugee kids.