For Cambodian Youth, The Wide Achievement Gap Often Goes Unseen

Apr 12, 2016

On a Wednesday afternoon a group of 50 kids file into the large gymnasium at the Dodge Recreation Center, located on the city’s west side. The sounds of laughter and sneakers echo off the high ceilings. These kids are of all ages and ethnic backgrounds, but the majority are Cambodian.

Danny Nam stands at the front of the room and greets everyone with high fives and hugs. He’s the director of Healthy Asian Youth, or HAY; an educational after-school program that’s been around for the last 15 years and was originally created to serve minority Asian youth. As the only program of its kind, these kids are bussed in from all over the city. HAY brings in homework tutors, and puts together activities and field trips.

Danny Nam has worked in the HAY program for the last six years.
Credit Esther Honig / WOSU

Columbus is home to some 2,000 Cambodian Americans. According to the US Census, there are more than 200,000 throughout the country with larger communities in Long Beach, California and Minneapolis, Minnesota. As with these other communities, Cambodians in Columbus typically struggle with surprisingly high rates of poverty and violence as well as a large educational achievement gap. Danny Nam knows all too well why these disparities often go unnoticed.

“In America we’re all grouped into one Asian American category but there’s over 20-something different ethnic groups within that,” said Nam.

Statistically speaking, the larger Asian American groups, like the Chinese and Japanese experience more success than southeast Asian minority groups like Cambodians, Hmong and Vietnamese. Yet they’re all blanketed under a single misnomer that Nam refers to as the “model minority” myth.

“There’s the stereotype that you know, Asian Americans are smart, advantaged, they’re economically sound,” said Nam.

Data for Cambodian Americans is reported along with the larger Asian American population, disparities within the Cambodian community are often eclipsed by their high performing counterparts. Look closely and find that a quarter of Cambodians live in poverty with a 35 percent high school dropout rate according to the American Community Survey--That’s double the rate of African Americans and Hispanics. Despite that, Nam says these issues are still ignored.

“We have all the symptoms of a community in need to Asian gang violence here on the Westside, to problems with narcotics,” said Nam.

These current circumstances are compounded by a recent history of trauma. Nam says many kids in HAY have parents that are refugees, survivors of the Cambodian genocide and they live with the physical and emotional scars.

“I’ve seen, parents who have gunshot wounds and I’ve seen parents without limbs..and I know for a fact that many suffer from Post Traumatic Stress,” said Nam.

The Cambodian genocide killed over a million people in the late 1970s. The Khmer Rouge regime targeted the country’s well educated; the artists and working professionals. Many of those who survived and made it to the U.S. were farmers and agricultural workers. They arrived broke and struggling to provide for their families with relatively no education. Like many kids in the HAY program, 21-year-old Dara Sann is the child of a refugee. He says his mother struggled to adapt to life in the US.

“It’s like putting a cat in a dog pound...that cat’s going to be afraid of everything,” said Dara.

Cambodian refugees also struggled to learn English, which creates a divide between the older and younger generations. 19 year-old Sonsophal Ann says many parents can’t teach their kids how to get a job, have safe sex, or finish school.

“It’s even hard for the children to talk to their parents and the parents to talk to their children about anything, because we even have a language barrier now,” said Sonsophal.

Both Dara and Sonsophal grew up going to HAY and say Danny Nam and the other kids became a second family, filling in the gaps of support and knowledge that their parents couldn’t. Dara says it was one of the few positive influences he had as a teen.

“You can just be a family, instead of a gang, we don’t have to resort to violence, HAY taught me that,” said Dara.

One day while at HAY, Danny Nam noticed the kids had an interest in break dancing. They would push the furniture to the sides of the room, play music off their phones and teach each other new moves. Sonsophal says they eventually decided to create a b-boy group.

“We were like, we should make it just like HAY, so we can call ourselves 'HAY crew' so I was thinking, why not Hungry Asian Youngsters, because we’re always hungry to get served,” said Sonsophal.

Today the group of about 20 dancers performs all around the city. As in so many other communities, hip hop and break dancing has emerged as a deterrent to negative influences and behavior. Dara, who says he got wrapped up in gangs as a young teen, has already graduated high school. He still comes back to dance and work with the younger kids in the b-boy group. Sonsophal says he graduates this year and will start college in the fall.

Editor's note: Broadcast and online versions of this story inaccurately stated the birthplace of Danny Nam.