Jason Argenta, 30’s
Siem Reap, Cambodia
Started and run LGBTIQ+ drop-in centre in Cambodia.
What racial, ethnic, cultural community or communities do you identify with?
Tell us about your family story.
I was born in Australia, but I moved to Cambodia about 7+ years ago. I first came as a volunteer on my way to do a 3-month Euro-trip. I volunteered with a building NGO and built houses, toilets and wells for families in need for 2 months. I fell in love with the place within the first few days and decided to move here to live. I did go to Europe for 3 months, but then returned to Australia for a month, sold all my things and moved to Cambodia New Year's Day 2014.
3 years later, I opened a drop-in centre for Khmer LGBTIQ+ individuals. It is called, "A Place To Be Yourself (កន្លែងដែលអ្នកអាចជាខ្លួនឯង)" and we are locally registered as, "Beautiful Life Organisation (អង្គការជីវិតស្រស់បំព្រង)" because the Ministry didn't like the name, A Place To Be Yourself, haha. Around the same time, I started working in mental health here, too (My background in Australia is in Psychology, Sociology and Child Protection). I started offering one-on-one counselling sessions, mentoring, consultancy services and workshops relating to mental health.
My counselling business is called, Penhjet Counselling Services. I chose the word "Penhjet" because its literal translation is "full (penh) heart (jet)", which I think is so apt when we are talking about mental health. It is generally used to express a feeling of satisfaction. APTBY is an NGO and we are open daily. We are staffed by Khmer individuals and all our resources are created and written in Khmer. We started with the drop-in space, but we basically try and help local LGBTIQ+ individuals in whatever way we can - we organise community events and annual Pride events, offer free counselling for Khmer LGBTIQ+ individuals, teach workshops about Gender & Sexuality, and try to support local LGBTIQ+ talents by helping to highlight and sell their products, provide scholarships to LGBTIQ+ individuals (Some have studied English, Counselling, Tourism, etc.). We helped organise an album launch for an LGBTIQ+ band in Siem Reap, and created and printed a Khmer LGBTIQ+ Dictionary. The list goes on!
I am in a same-sex relationship with a Khmer guy named Tola, who I met shortly after moving here. We started a cafe together with my mum named, "Krousar Cafe" (krousar = family). APTBY is located on the same site as Krousar Cafe, so 1) that we don't have to pay rent, and 2) so that visitors can enter without people necessarily knowing that they're coming to an LGBTIQ+ drop- in centre (It's private). Penhjet also utilises the meeting room (or "loungeroom" as we call it) at Krousar Cafe for private counselling sessions.
Tola and I recently adopted a young Khmer boy. We named him Som El Silver (Som El is Tola's dad's name, as it is traditional for this to be passed down - and Silver is the English meaning of my Italian surname, Argenta).
What are the strengths and challenges of being an Australian living in Cambodia?
I am Caucasian, but I can offer some interesting insight into life in Cambodia as a foreigner. For example, how a lot of Khmer people want to have white skin and use whitening products all the time. How things that people thought of as "ugly" in Australia, Khmer people really seem to like about me - big eyebrows, white skin, etc. How I try to challenge all of this, as well as stereotypes and discrimination related to being LGBTIQ+.
What is your proudest accomplishment?
Oh... probably starting APTBY or the counselling I have done over the years here or even just the work I did in Child Protection in Australia because that had such a big impact on me at such a young age.
Reflecting on how you grew up, what did you learn or appreciate from your family?
"United we stand, divided we fall." Unconditional love (from one parent) and the power of that.
Do you speak your family's native language? Why or why not?
My mum has Italian parents and I learnt a little Italian in high school. I have been learning Khmer pretty much since I moved here - I can speak enough to get by, and can read and write but I am not fluent. I still have 2 lessons per week, which I use mostly to translate material and resources for APTBY and Penhjet.
What advice do you have for the younger generations in our communities?
Be open and accepting, and follow your own heart and path and dreams (not just that of your parents).
What gives you the greatest joy in life?
Other people! ^^
Are there any projects you have created that you'd like to share and promote?
Khmer Vulnerability Aid Organization (KVAO), formerly known as RISC Cambodia, assists former refugees, who lived in the United States and who have been repatriated to Cambodia, to adjust to life in contemporary Cambodia. This program offers help with necessary documentation, finding employment and housing, and integrating into Cambodian society. All services are provided at no cost and are essential in aiding returnees adjusting to their new life in Cambodia.
The overthrow of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime occurred in 1979. During this time, the U.S. accepted 150,000 Cambodian refugees into Boston, Long Beach and Seattle areas. Most refugees suffered from PTSD from enduring starvation, witnessing murder, and family division. Despite the extreme trauma, these individuals endured despite receiving limited support services. Many of the children who came to the U.S. were born in refugee camps. Growing up in the inner city, learning a new language and lacking community, led many of the young individuals unfortunately to get involved in the justice system. Their actions were not significantly different from their peers, but because they lacked U.S. citizenship, their actions had other consequences.
In 2002, Cambodia signed an agreement with the U.S. to accept deportations. Despite having already served their sentences in the U.S. prison system, thousands of Cambodian Americans have already been deported or are currently awaiting deportation. Most of these Cambodians came to the U.S. very young, don't speak the language and are unfamiliar with the culture and the society of contemporary Cambodia. Having had to endure the genocide and family severance, many individuals are no faced with the issue of deportation to a "home" they know nothing about and must withstand the struggles of cultural assimilation yet again.
In 2013, I wanted to support RISC Cambodia, now called KVAO. One of the ways I helped give back to this community is by coordinating a fundraising event at the U-District in Seattle, WA with several colleagues and professors from the University of Washington. Everyone came together to help make this event a success, and we raised over $6k. We received support from local artists and small businesses and held a silent auction. We invited Many Uch, a Cambodian refugee who had been fighting his order of deportation for nearly 24 years, and several other Cambodian Americans awaiting deportation to share their stories. As a 2nd generation Khmer American, I believe it is our responsibility to help these individuals. With the increase of Cambodian deportees each year, KVAO relies on financial support from the community since it is a non-governmental organization (NGO).
The aid goes to support Cambodian returnees through the following services:
Initial Orientation: KVAO meets each client on arrival at the General Department of Identification (GDID). During the initial meeting, or as soon thereafter as practicable, KVAO personnel will complete an intake form based on a personal, confidential interview with each client.
Documentation Assistance: KVAO assists each client to acquire necessary documents for personal identification or employment such as; birth and marriage certificates, national identification card, residence & family book and other registration papers.
Employment Assistance: Clients are provided with informal counselling and orientation related to employment, creation and updating of resumes, skills and education grants based on available resources.
Temporary Housing Assistance: Clients who are sponsored by KVAO program and those who are going through critical circumstances in his/her transition will be provided with temporary housing and the necessities.
Basic Medical Support: KVAO has a humanitarian commitment to provide emergency medical assistance in cases of illness or injury or maintenance treatment for chronic conditions for clients who have been in country for 3 years period and those determined to have physical and mental health disability.
Legal Monitoring: KVAO assists clients in monitoring their legal proceedings and help them fully understand their proceedings. KVAO also conducts monthly prison visits in order to verify the well-being of the clients who are incarcerated.
Referral Assistance: KVAO makes appropriate referrals for counseling, employment, medical treatment, drug detoxification, etc.
Follow-Up Support: To verify the well-being and resettlement situation of clients, KVAO conducts regular follow-up with clients through calls, texts and Facebook chat.
Field Visit: To justify services to the whole target population, KVAO conducts Field Visit to mainly the western parts of the country 6 times per year.
Defusing and Mediating Conflict: To build peace in the community, KVAO assists clients with defusing and mediating conflict within the community as it arises.
Thank you for caring,
Tuy Sobil, who goes by KK, was born in a Thai refugee camp as a result of the Khmer Rouge Genocide during the mid to late 1970s. KK spent most of his childhood and teenage years growing up in the projects of Los Angeles, USA. Unfortunately, like many other immigrants struggling to survive with limited resources and support (let alone having to overcome PTSD and trauma), KK got involved in gangs and convicted at the age of 18. The saying "aing jong tvuh gang, eh?" translates to "do you want to join a gang, eh?" is a common question that Khmer parents pose to their children because of how frequently it happens and impacts the Cambodian diaspora. Now with a criminal record, KK got sentenced to Cambodia and was forced to leave behind his life to go to a place that he has never known.
KK was a former breakdancer back in the states. Forced to live in a third world country after growing up in a first world country was an eye-opening experience. He saw many homeless kids without shelter and the basic necessities and living in the slums. These kids got involved in drugs and crime. Not wanting them to continue down this hopeless path, he opened up his home to these kids even though he had a small home. He started teaching them break-dancing and hip hop culture. Word got out and more kids started showing up. That's when he launched Tiny Toones, a charity with a vision for all youth in Cambodia and beyond to live a healthy life free of HIV and drugs, to realize their full potential through educational and creative opportunities, and to pursue their dreams and become positive leaders of tomorrow.
On December of 2007, I've had the opportunity to visit KK and Tiny Toones during a study abroad program through the University of Washington School of Social Work. I was inspired by KK's compassion and commitment to ensure the safety, health and well-being of children in need. Over 100 children from the slums go to Tiny Toones every day to dance, make music, practice English and Khmer, learn computing, and enjoy the freedom to be children. Although faced with new adversities in a new country, KK chose to live a life of purpose, love and compassion.
Today, Tiny Toones is a safe place for children to learn, be creative, and develop a positive sense of identity and community. We want to commend KK for having such a big heart and paying it forward through using his talents and creativity to save so many kids' lives and help them have a brighter future.
If you would like to learn more, visit www.tinytoones.org. Tiny Toones is a registered charity in Cambodia and receive no statutory funding, relying wholly on donations. If you are interested in making a donation, visit the link here.
Thank you for taking the time to learn more about KK's story and how Tiny Toones has made a positive impact on the at-risk youth in Cambodia.
2nd Generation Cambodian American
2019 UW Sociology Alumna
As 2 Khmerican Sisters, we believe it is important for us to tell our story, a story of a community that is too often buried in the model minority myth. One way for our community to be heard is by making sure we all get counted in the 2020 Census.
Completing the 2020 census ensures that our community gets the federal funding for programs that our elders and community members heavily depend on, such as Social Security SSI, EBT food stamps, free and reduced school lunch, Medicare/Medicaid, TANF, and WIC. It also helps local and trusted community based organizations secure funding. These organizations rely on census data in their grant writing when they seek to fulfill culturally competent programming for our community.
Fill out the census online by visiting my2020census.gov.
Khmer Census 2020 is a collective led Khmer Anti-deportation Advocacy Group of WA (KhAAG), which advocates getting all Khmer people counted in the 2020 Census.
Our essential message to the community is to get counted because:
While folks are free to write in what they identify as, in the "What's your race?" question, mark "Other asian" and write in "KHMER" The Khmer community is underserved and under resourced due in large part to our visibility, essentially we lack any in the public at large. One way to raise our visibility and tell our story is to get counted in the census and fill it out as a "KHMER" person.
Activist: Bunthay Cheam