The 1970s, Tem Chea remembers, were a time of fear, running, and crowded refugee camps.
The Cambodian refugee and his family moved four times from camp to camp while escaping the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime that claimed about 1 million lives. After landing in Oregon, he later moved to Lowell, where he integrated into American society by becoming a teacher and eventually helping create the Cambodian American Voter League.
Last week, a book recounting the struggles of Chea and other Southeast Asian-Americans in Lowell was released at a special event at the Mogan Cultural Center. The collection of essays, "Southeast Asian Refugees and Immigrants in the Mill City," written by academics and published by the University of Vermont, is a scholarly endeavor that tries to make sense of the setbacks and victories of Lowell's largest ethnic group in politics, education, and healthcare.
Chea said the book depicts how people from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam have contributed to Lowell. "This gives us the opportunity to share our story," Chea said at the book-release event. "It's kind of therapeutic, so to speak, for some of us who went through so much and rarely talk about it."
Tuyet-Lan Pho, director emeritus of the Center for Diversity and Pluralism at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and one of the book's co-editors, said the idea for the book emerged more than 10 years ago when more scholarly articles about Lowell Southeast Asian-American populations started being widely published.
"Lowell has always been an immigrant city," said the 67-year-old Vietnamese immigrant, who now lives in San Diego. "These essays put our experiences in perspective."
Her husband, Hin Pho, a UMass-Lowell professor emeritus of political science who contributed an article for the book, said: "There is such a rich history here. It needed to be written."
UMass-Lowell political science professor Jeffrey Gerson and Sylvia Cowan of Lesley University were the other editors of the book, which can be purchased in bookstores or ordered online at amazon.com.
Southeast Asian-Americans make up about one-fifth of Lowell's population of 100,000, according to the 2000 US Census. Tuyet-Lan Pho said the number of Southeast Asian-Americans settling in Lowell picked up in the 1980s as jobs attracted refugees who had originally settled on the West Coast. But like any new group, the Southeast Asian refugees faced discrimination and alienation, she said.
Since those early days, Pho said, she has seen a transformation as the children of Cambodians and Laotians enrolled in college and the groups got more politically active.
Former Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis and his wife, Kitty, attended the book-release event that drew around 100 residents. Dukakis praised the Southeast Asian-American community for helping the economic development of Lowell.
Kitty Dukakis was among nine community leaders who were presented special awards for their work with Southeast Asian refugees in the area.
Chea, another honoree, said he hopes some of the essays inspire other Asian refugees in the Lowell area to share their stories for other projects and books. Part of the problem, he said, was persuading those who fled war-torn countries to talk about the past.
"There is still this fear that what we saw back there isn't over, that something bad is still going to happen," said Chea, who is now retired. "We are stuck to the past, but there is a fear of the past."
Russell Contreras can be reached at email@example.com.