Elderly Refugees: The Experiences of Cambodian populations under the Khmer Rouge

War, natural disaster and fear of persecution often result in the tragic displacement of people far away from their homes. These people, refugees, live in uncertainty and under significant psychological and physical stress. Among these refugees are the elderly who are a particularly vulnerable group. Aging is not limited to disease and disability, but also the sudden change and a loss of belonging. The experiences of Cambodian elderly refugee populations is a clear example.

The Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia in the 1970s, prompting several years of genocide and a mass exodus of Cambodians into Thailand, US and other countries. By 1979, there were 160,000 Cambodians in refugee camps in Thailand.

A 10 year study sought to capture the experiences of Cambodian Americans in Northern California. Most Cambodian Americans lived in run down neighborhoods with a high prevalence of criminal activity. Elderly immigrants were at high risk of occupying poor housing conditions. Despite this fact, some refugees chose to move back into inner city neighborhoods as they aged to be a part of the community they once were as recent immigrants. In the case of this refugee population, many elderly people did not want to return to Cambodia given the turmoil which influenced their flight. Of those who did, they were constantly reminded of the differences in living conditions between the two countries.

Many Cambodian refugees in the US had poor education. With low income and little to non-existent English skills, elderly refugees constantly needed support from other immigrant populations, their children, and resources from the government. One woman says, “At my age, I’ve nothing to do, but pray for my children. I know that now I am their pillar, but later when they all grow up and leave, I will be alone with only myself to rely on.”

The past experiences with the hardships of the Khmer Rouge are constantly woven into their current narratives. For instance, many elderly complain of diseases such as high blood pressure or sleeplessness, and attribute such ailments to the harsh lives under the the Khmer regime. Post-traumatic stress disorder and depression are also common among Cambodian refugees. According to one study, family-related anger is prevalent among refugee families because of the cultural gap between refugees and the general population, as well as between refugees and their children who are much better adjusted to American lifestyle.

There are many organizations working towards improving the lives of elderly immigrants. The International Rescue Committee (IRC), one of the world’s leading organizations for refugees, has an Elderly Refugee Program. This program provides English as a Second Language classes, and assists in part-time employment and obtaining citizenship.

Yet the question remains – What can be done about the sense of loss of loved ones, one’s home, country and citizenship?

Namratha Rao is currently pursuing her MSPH in International Health in Social and Behavioral Interventions at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.

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