Project Preserves Cambodian Genocide Survivor Stories After Decades of Silence

Monica Luhar for NBC Asian America, April 21, 2017 

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Growing up in Long Beach, California, Phatana Ith often felt detached from her identity as a Cambodian-American woman until she began to have conversations with elder women in the community about their experiences during the Cambodian genocide.

As Ith continued to have these dialogues, she felt more connected to her bicultural identity. That feeling pushed her to gather the untold stories of elder women survivors of the Cambodian genocide, which killed 1.7 million people between 1975 and 1979 when the Southeast Asian country was under the rule of the Khmer Rouge, according to Yale University.

The stories have now been formally compiled as an ongoing oral history project called “Out of the Shadows” at California State University, Long Beach.

“I found that I felt connected to my identity through these experiences with the elders and at the same time, the elders felt connected to me and hopeful that their culture and values and stories would live on so long as there was someone on the other end to listen to them,” Ith, who lectures at the university, told NBC News.

Ith’s project focuses specifically on untold narratives of female survivors, many of whom have remained mostly silent since coming to the United States four decades ago, according to Ith.

“I wanted to invite elders, female survivors from the Cambodian community to engage with me with this project and share their narratives on their own terms,” Ith said.

Phatana Ith in Long Beach’s Cambodia Town Kevin Tran / Courtesy of California State University, Long Beach.

“This was quite an organic process to see this project and vision come to life,” she added, noting that survivors of the genocide can be private about discussing what they experienced.

Ith spoke with female survivors specifically because she realized that Khmer women didn’t necessarily have opportunities to share their narratives “because males are often seen as the authorities of knowledge, and this is true for many societies, not just Khmer society,” she said.

Though Ith didn’t live through the genocide, she has many family members who have survived it, further prompting her to learn more about her culture, her roots, and her history.

She immersed herself in cultural events, attending ceremonies at Buddhist temples and doing everything she could to learn the Khmer language and reconnect with her family story.

“I struggled with identity and these struggles came from a deeper place and that was not really knowing where I came from and because I didn’t know who I was or who I could be,” she said. “I tried everything I could to find my identity.”

The United Cambodian Community located in Long Beach’s Cambodia Town. Kevin Tran / Courtesy of California State University, Long Beach

Ith also said that, when she realized the wealth of information the community elders had, she felt she needed to preserve it for future generations.

In collecting stories from survivors of trauma, Ith said there is a need to approach research with sensitivity, cultural sensitivity, and trauma-informed care.

Experts need to be prepared to treat trauma as receivers of information and stories, she added.

“We have no intention to go in and get these stories and leave these individuals worse than they were by retriggering these traumatic experiences,” Ith said. “Not at all. We want to go in and we want to be invited in, and we want to be clear that what we intend to do is make this community or be a part of this community healing.”

Ith said her hometown of Long Beach contains one of the largest Khmer populations outside of Cambodia. Her family left the country shortly after she was born and arrived in the U.S. when she was 7 months old. They landed in Ohio in 1982 and moved to Long Beach in 1984.

“I remember it was a dangerous time to be in Long Beach in the ’80s,” she said. “During that era, there were a lot of gang wars, and there were fights for territory and Cambodians were the new kids on the block.”

Phatana Ith at 7 months old in Cambodia. The serial numbers were used to identify the Ith family. The number “9/9” indicates that Itm was the youngest of the nine in her party. Courtesy of California State University, Long Beach

Many of Ith’s family members — including her mother — survived the genocide, but the trauma lived with them for generations, according to Ith.

“It was in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge came and took over [my mom’s] city and she lost her husband…my mother’s husband was executed, so she was widowed at the onset of the genocide,” Ith said, adding that her mother had eight children who were relocated to a labor concentration camp and saw her brother executed in front of her own eyes.

“The things that they saw were atrocious, watching executions of their own family members,” Ith said.

From conversations she had with her mother, Ith said her mom would gather her children and tell them that if anything were to happen to her, she had hidden family jewels in thehome. “She hoarded certain jewels when they were evacuated from the city and kept them in secret compartments,” Ith said.

According to Ith, survivors of the genocide believed that “if you were deemed not fit to work, you were going to be killed.”

Ith’s mother told her a story about trucks that were loaded with people during the night. The trucks would leave in the middle of the night, and, in the morning, they were empty. “You never heard of these people again, and it was assumed they were mass executed,” Ith said.

The oral history project comes during the remembrance of the 42nd anniversary of the Cambodian genocide. Several cities across the nation, including Long Beach, organized candlelight vigils on Monday, April 17, to honor the lives lost. These memorials play a vital role in healing and continuing to share stories, according to community members and organizers.

“The imprints of genocide are very evident in Cambodian refugee homes but the relationship of younger generation Cambodians to this genocidal history is mediated by language loss, temporal and cultural disconnect, and lack of information,” Khatharya Um, an associate professor of Asian-American and Asian diaspora studies at the University of California, Berkeley, told NBC News. “Many younger generation Cambodians, thus, feel the weight of this historical tragedy but are often without the tools to make sense of it.”

“Even though this story is emotional, it really is helping me heal, and I think more people need to learn more about the effects of genocide,” Savong Lam, a Washington state-based genocide survivor and one of the organizers of the National Day of Remembrance Candlelight Vigil in Tacoma, Washington, told NBC News.

Earlier this month, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved a motion declaring April 17, 2017, “Cambodian Genocide Remembrance Day.”

“Having this recognition from the county is a big statement for us and I think that it speaks to something that we’ve wanted all along, which was to belong to this community and to belong to this nation,” Ith said.

And to honor and remember the lives lost in Cambodia, California state Sen. Ricardo Lara introduced a resolution recognizing Cambodian Genocide Memorial Week from April 17 to 23.

“Long Beach is home to the nation’s largest Cambodian population. It’s important to me that the Cambodian Genocide is recognized each year to honor the lives lost,” Lara told NBC News by email. “The resilience of survivors and their families is a true testament to the human spirit.”

Last May, the Long Beach City Council approved a proposal for the development of the Cambodian Genocide Memorial Park (also known as Killing Fields Memorial Garden) in the city’s Cambodia Town.

Paline Soth, one of the organizers of the 42nd Anniversary Killing Fields Memorial Commemoration, told NBC News that the garden memorial is scheduled to be completed within the next 18 months, thanks to a $150,000 grant from the city.

“Our purpose is simple: memorial, respect, remembrance. We do not forget. We will not forget our people who suffered tremendously and the genocide,” Soth said. “This is killings of the people by their own people and so this is something that is very significant to the people of Long Beach.”

Ith hopes her oral archive project will provide a space for healing and an opportunity for future generations to reflect on stories from elder women and survivors.

“I want the female survivors to know that their knowledge is valuable and what they are leaving behind when they are gone — because they are aging out of our population — what they leave behind are stories of resilience, of survival, of love, and of forgiveness,” she said.

She also hopes that her oral archive project can be something that other communities use as a format for approaching sensitive stories about war and genocide.

“Genocide is going on as we speak, and so how do we provide resources that show care, compassion, and sensitivity for those people who come out of these horrible situations?” Ith said. “I think this project and research can contribute to that in some way.”

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Native Hawaiian Artist Uses Tattoos to Teach Culture, Help Sexual Assault Survivors

Monica Luhar for NBC Asian America, April 3, 2017 

When tattoo artist Marlo Lualemana made the decision to share her story as a survivor of childhood sexual assault, the response she received from friends, clients, and followers from social media was overwhelming.

“I can’t begin to tell you how many people private messaged me and told me, ‘thank you so much. I’m not quite ready to open myself up yet, but thank you for doing that,” Lualemana told NBC News. “It let others know they are not alone, and it created a lasting bond with those I’ve come in contact with both through tattooing them or just talking in person.”

At Earthbound Tattoo, ‘You Walk in as a Client, You Leave Here as ‘Ohana’ 2:47

Lualemana was sexually assaulted at the ages of five and nine while growing up in Hawaii, she said. For many years, she didn’t tell her family or friends about the assaults and hesitated to put her story on social media. But since coming forward, many of her clients and social media followers have been inspired to also share their stories and experiences of trauma and healing.

“I never shared this story to my family. It wasn’t until I put it on Instagram and Facebook last month,” the 47-year-old mother of two said.

Today, she uses her craft as a tattoo artist to educate others about Native Hawaiian cultural identity and empower sexual assault survivors through the art of tattooing. Lualemana believes that sharing her own story has helped some of her clients, many of whom are sexual assault survivors, open up.

She referenced a recent time when a client of hers decided to open up to Lualemana about the trauma he experienced after being molested as a child after he saw that Lualemana went public with her own story.

“[Sexual assault] affects men and women. If I can help in some way — at least help them to find a path with tattooing that allows them to find a message, to breathe again, and open up and understand they’re not alone and it’s okay to talk about it — I’ve done my part,” she said.

As the co-owner of Earthbound Tattoo Studio in Sand City, California, Lualemana is known for creating customized neo-Polynesian, tribal, and lettering patterns that represent symbols of strength and protection.

Marlo Laulemana with her family. Courtesy of Marlo Laulemana

 

For Lualemana, it’s both an honor and responsibility to ink her clients and make them feel as comfortable as possible and proud of the art on their skin.

“It’s hard to describe it, but people tend to open up and when they do I feel like we have a connection, a lifetime connection and they feel the same way,” she said. “They feel their tattoo represents a new beginning, a new chapter, and it’s going to help them heal when they look at it.”

“If I’m able to help in some little way, somebody, when they look at the tattoo and relate…and relate to the fact that it represents a survivor, then I feel like I’ve done something positive,” she added.

Marlo Laulemana with her husband Courtesy of Marlo Laulemana

A tattoo artist and professional dancer for the past 11 years, Lualemana started off sketching tattoo pieces, watching YouTube tattoo videos, and spending hours studying and learning about the significance of certain motifs and patterns. She credits her husband as a huge influence who nurtured and inspired her to give tattooing a try. He was also the first person she practiced on.

“He said, ‘hey baby, you should start tattooing. He was my first tattoo, and he looked at it like a rite of passage,” she said.

Before she went on to ink human skin, Lualemana practiced inking on honeydew melons and other fruit that had a “fleshy texture” after her husband brought home a tattooing starter kit and coil machine. After a few days, she was hooked and knew it was her calling.

“I tattooed the shit out of these fruit, there wasn’t a spot left on these things and saved them for three months and my husband said, ‘baby, we got to let them go,'” she said.

Lualemana counts as many as 10 tattoos on her body. The one she feels most connected to is the one that was inspired by her grandmother: A female lizard motif on her chin, which connects to other parts of her body.

“A lot of my tattoos are referenced to that ʻAumākua,” said Lualemana, using a Hawaiian word that translates to “ancestral guardian spirits.”

“I was really close to her [grandmother], and I wanted to show some respect and honor. The best way I could do that is through tattoos because it’s permanent, and I feel like she’s watching over me.”

Marlo Lualemana counts as many as 10 tattoos on her body. Courtesy of Marlo Lualemana

The tattoo on Lualemana’s face has received mixed attention, she noted. Before going through with the face tattoo, she thought about it for three years.

“Especially for women, it’s a whole beauty image. You got your magazines, and there’s this stigma that we have to be a certain way, so to tattoo your face is not the norm,” she said. “For the most part, people are really intrigued and then 25 percent give me that look, ‘like why did she do that? She must not work, she must be an idiot, why would she tattoo her face?”

But Lualemana says these comments do not stop her hustle or bring her down because each tattoo has a unique story to tell.

In honor of her husband’s family, she recently got a tattoo that took over six hours to complete. “It goes from below my kneecap to my high thigh, wrapped on both legs. That was something I won’t forget and the honor to my husband’s family,” said Lualemana, adding that she doesn’t just put “anything on her body” unless it signifies something deeper that represents the stories of her ancestors and the stories of her lineage.

Before she became a full-time tattoo artist, Lualemana grew up in Waimānalo, Hawaii, and spent her early childhood performing hula. She was born to dance, as her dad was a Hawaiian entertainer for as long as she can remember.

Marlo Lualemana performing the hula. Courtesy of Marlo Lualemana

“We have a love and passion for our culture and I’m grateful to my parents because they instilled Hawaiian values in us and we were raised to respect our elders,” Lualemana said. “My sister danced, my mom danced.”

As she grew older, Lualemana joined Nā Lei Hulu I Ka Wēkiu, a professional Hawaiian dance troupe in San Francisco for 10 years. She would make frequent touring trips from Monterey to San Francisco on the weekends while practicing traditional and contemporary hula . During that same time, she simultaneously worked as a tattoo artist, though she recently retired from hula dancing due to knee problems, she explained.

“I tattooed full-time and danced hula on the weekends, so I had no day off. Because I had such a love for tattooing and because I realized that I was starting to get really good at it, I knew that I have to continue to learn,” she said.

Every day, Lualemana puts as much “energy and aloha” into her customized tattoo pieces as she can, capturing different stories that relay messages of peace, resilience, and strength. She’s had cancer survivors, people who have battled depression and suicide, and clients who have come to get a tattoo for the first time, wary and unsure of what to expect, she said.

Lualemana spends a majority of her time at work conversing with her clients and learning more about what they hope to get that will best encompass their unique story. She freehands and draws on them for an hour before the actual tattooing process starts. They come in as clients, but leave as family, she said.

“With tattooing, I’m able to educate people, and I’m grateful for that. I tell people a little bit about my culture and how proud I am to be Hawaiian and give them a little history about Polynesian history. I tattoo a lot of people and hope I leave an impression on them so they have a greater respect for my culture and the Polynesian people as a whole,” she said.

She’s had clients travel from Oregon, Texas, London, Dubai, Brazil, and Italy, to get inked at Earthbound Tattoo Studio. Many who come to get a tattoo are surprised to find they’re being tattooed by a female Hawaiian tattoo artist, she said.

“I stay humble, I let my work speak for itself and sometimes these guys don’t know I’m a female until they look more into my work and they’re intrigued. A lot of men are just like enamored by the fact they are being tattooed by a Hawaiian tattoo artist, because there are only a few left,” Lualemana said, adding that she takes a lot of pride being one of the only “recognizable Hawaiian female tattoo artists in California.”

“People want to stop and look [at my tattoos] and I get possible clients and people are curious,” she said. “They want to know what they represent. For me, they represent my passion, my love, and respect for my culture.”

Rise in Hate Crimes Inspires Krav Maga Training in LGBTQ Community

Monica Luhar for VICE.com’s Tonic, April 12, 2017 

There’s been a 400 percent increase in requests for self-defense and violence prevention programs since the election.17820023_10155180055294841_1463574125_o (1)

As hate crimes and discrimination against the LGBTQ community continue to increase in the wake of the election, combat gyms and martial arts studios across the country are offering free self-defense classes as a show of support.

Hate crimes continue to be a major problem in the US: More than 1,372 incidents took place between election day and February 2017 alone, and there are currently at least 52 hate groups that actively target LGBT members, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Perhaps as a result, many community advocates and self-defense instructors have reported a surging interest in martial arts classes. The Center for Anti-Violence Education, for instance, has seen a 400 percent increase in requests for self-defense and violence prevention programs since the election, according to Tracy Hobson, the Center’s executive director. Most of the calls and inquiries, she says, have been coming from the LGBTQ community, women, and people of color.

A few weeks after the 2016 mass shooting at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, Matt Robinson recalls being asked if he could organize a free active killer defense seminar geared toward the LGBTQ community. Robinson, the owner of Krav Maga and MMA in Charleston, South Carolina, agreed on the spot—the sense of fear in the air was palpable, and he wanted to do what he could to help.

In each seminar, Robinson runs through a series of worst-case scenarios that might play out in public places like restaurants and bars—including how to potentially step in and prevent a mass shooting. “I give people a kind of ‘what to do’ should things should go bad and they find themselves in a [vulnerable] position,” he says.

The trend has been picking up: At New York’s Brooklyn Goju, for instance, instructor Yuko Uchikawa offers free karate classes to cis and trans women and survivors of abuse. As they practice kicks and stances, the students also get to know each other in one of the safest spaces possible—one in which they’re even encouraged to clarify which pronoun they want to be addressed with.

The calls for action, however, aren’t just selfish in nature. “One thing [that’s] is heartening is there are people who actually want to be trained on how to be an upstander rather than a bystander,” Hobson says. “They’re interested in how to stand up for other people.” And that’s increasingly important: One study published in February looked at the types of discrimination that LGBTQ people face globally. Resarchers Chelsea Lee and Robert Ostergard Jr. focused on 175 countries using an algorithm and discrimination index that measured three areas: criminalization and punishment, discrimination, and intolerance. They concluded that “most states have high levels of discrimination, which not only prevent LGBTQ people from attaining equal rights, but also threatens their well-being.”

Daniela Vinesar, CEO and instructor at Chicago’s Titan Gym, also restructured her Krav Maga classes after noticing an increase in demand from the LGBT community. “We designed the workshops as a safe haven to [help] ease anxiety,” she says. The first class was a such a success that she now offers the workshops monthly.

Perhaps inspired by the success, some of her fellow employees are getting in on the act, too. One instructor, Daniel Imhoff, recently led a class called “Get Stronger Together: LGBTQ Self-Defense Workshop,” where he taught de-escalation techniques, and demonstrated how to get out of chokehold situations. “I wanted to teach Krav Maga because I think everyone should feel that confident in themselves. And I wanted to teach to the LGBTQ community because, as a gay man, I know what it’s like to be a target—especially [in this political] climate,” he says.

One of Titan’s members, Bradley Blankenship, registered for Imhoff’s free self-defense class and put a call out on his Facebook page, inviting friends to join. As Islamaphobia continues to spread, Blankenship and his partner, who is Pakistani American, had been feeling tense—uncertain about the safety of their friends and family.

“I’m fortunate to live in a progressive city and liberal neighborhood, but many people aren’t that lucky. Hate crimes are on the rise,” he says. But even in the most progressive cities, violence is still a part of everyday life, says Alberto R. Lammers, communications director at the San Francisco LGBT Center.

“We still see these type of things happen, especially in the transgender community,” he says. “Unfortunately the rhetoric coming out of Washington is only making matters worse and emboldening people to act on ignorance.”

One transgender woman I spoke with, who prefers to go by the pseudonym “Scout,” even told me that martial arts training is a necessity to survive daily life in the Bay Area, but that for a long time she couldn’t find a safe, affordable place to train. Inspired by her own experiences with street harassment—as well as reading about the violent deaths of 22 transgender women in 2016—Scout recently worked out a deal with a local gym thanks in part to a grant from a private community fund. She now regularly practices Jiu Jitsu. “As a broke trans woman,” she says, “it has changed my life.”