New photo book reveals experience of Cambodian refugees after resettling in the United States

They’re snapshots in time capturing moments in a Chicago neighborhood - featuring Cambodian refugees.

But for Silong Chhun of Tacoma, it’s like going back in time.

“To me, when I seen these photos, I felt like everybody needs to see these photos because this is what I went through,” Chhun said.

Chhun and his family survived the killing fields of Cambodia and landed in the Pacific Northwest back in 1981. He was just 2 years old. His family resettled in Tacoma’s Salishan Housing Project - a period marked with hardship but also joy.

“My parents gave me what they came here for, the American dream,” Chhun explained. “They really gave that to me with their struggle.”

Salishan, which was redeveloped in 2000, is not the same. Neither is Chhun.

“I feel like it tore down a piece of me, too, but at the same time, we’re rebuilding something better, and that’s how I see the plight of the Cambodian community,” Chhun added.

Chhun, now 42, is a Khmer-American activist dedicated to preserving the community’s history and heritage.

He was first introduced to these photos years ago. They immediately resonated with him because he saw the Cambodian diaspora’s experience in the United States - a story that’s not well known and just now starting to be told.

“So if you see the photos of the traditional weddings that’s taking place in the book, I think it shows the dynamics and the complexity of trying to fit in and trying to define who we are as a people,” Chhun said.

The photos were taken by Seattle-based photographer Stuart Isett over a 3-year period beginning in 1991. He was a graduate student of photography in Chicago when he came across the newly resettled Cambodian refugees.

“I started photographing them. And I always felt the Cambodian story was a story that Americans don’t know about,” Isett said.

He wanted to capture the resilience of people who escaped genocide during the Khmer Rouge regime as they struggled to adapt to life in America while also maintaining their culture.

“I was very fascinated - I wouldn’t call it tension, but the interaction between these kids who are American or more American hanging outside and trying to adapt to America on the street and then going into the home where parents were in control and there was a little more Cambodia,” Isett recounted.

When Isett decided to revisit his work and publish it in what would ultimately become “On the Corners of Argyle and Glenwood,” he immediately knew he wanted Cambodians like Chhun to collaborate.

Chhun contextualized the photos for this coming of age, “We fought to maintain our culture after conflict,” and “We learned to blend in but stay proud.”

“It was such a hard balance, something to juggle, just for Stuart to capture these moments really speaks volumes,” Chhun said.

Isett is amazed his photos are relevant 30 years later.

“It’s very rewarding to see the reaction from the Cambodian community. To me, that’s the most gratifying part of it. Because it tells me that maybe I did do this the right way when I did this. I was able to tell the story properly,” Isett added.

And it’s a story that is continuing to be told, thanks to those in the community like Chhun.

“I think it’s important for our community to be able to step up and speak for ourselves and tell our own stories and share our own narratives because no one is going to do it for us,” Chhun said.

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