Violence, Foreclosures Define Cambodian Community 20 Years After School Shooting
New America Media, News Report, Eric Tang Posted: Jan 17, 2009
Editor’s Note: Twenty years after a gunman opened fire on a schoolyard of mostly Southeast Asian children in Stockton, Calif., the Cambodian American community tries to heal from that violence, and the larger issues affecting refugees to America. Eric Tang is an Assistant Professor in the Department of African American Studies and the Asian American Studies Program at the University of Illinois. His forthcoming book is titled 'Unsettled: America’s Refugees and the Struggle for a Just Resettlement.'
STOCKTON, Calif. -- “Going back to teach at the school was my way to letting go of it all,” said Rann Chun, a third-grade teacher at Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton, Calif.
Exactly 20 years ago, on January 17, 1989, Chun was a nine-year-old student at Cleveland when a lone gunman opened fire on the schoolyard, killing five and injuring 30 before taking his own life. Chun’s six-year-old sister, Ram Chun, was among those killed.
Before Columbine or Virginia Tech—indeed before “school shooting” became familiar phraseology in American culture—there was the Stockton schoolyard incident.
Few outside of Northern California recall this tragedy in which 24-year-old gunman Edward Patrick Purdy emptied 105 shots from an AK-47 assault rifle into a schoolyard of approximately 450 schoolchildren. Fewer still recall that at the time of the shooting, Southeast Asian refugee children comprised 70 percent of Cleveland’s student body. Among the five fatalities, four were Cambodian Americans—including Ram Chun—and one was a Vietnamese American. Their ages ranged from 6 to 9 years old. The families of these children had recently resettled in Stockton in the wake of the Vietnam War and the Khmer Rouge atrocities in Cambodia.
Twenty years ago, the tragedy brought forth divergent – if not competing – analyses and lessons. Racial justice advocates demanded that the attorney general consider the incident a hate crime. Others took the occasion to call for stronger gun control laws. But for the mostly Cambodian-American survivors, there was another lesson gleaned: The struggle for peace and survival does not end with resettlement in the United States.
According to Stockton community leader Sovanna Koeurt, those who lost their children had to “either let go and build something new and for the better or they didn’t survive.”
Chun’s father found this impossible to do. Though he had had lost loved ones to the Khmer Rouge, he could not pull himself together after the killing of his youngest daughter.
“He didn’t survive,” Chun said. Within 10 years of the shooting, the father passed away, succumbing to deep depression and heavy drinking.
Three years ago, Chun returned to Cleveland Elementary to become a first-grade teacher—incidentally, this was the grade his sister was in during the time of the shooting. He now teaches third grade.
“I went back to be role model for change, for a new beginning,” he said. “I didn’t want to leave it behind as a place where my life changed for the worse, but for the better.”
According to Koeurt, Chun’s story exemplifies not only triumph over tragedy, but also the way in which a young man can beat the odds in a community plagued by poverty and gang violence.
“Resettlement to America was just another verse, another phase, in our story of refugee survival,” said Koueurt, who is the founding director of APSARA, a social service agency and community development corporation created in the wake of the shooting. She is referring to how life in the United States presented a new set of hardships and tragedies, and how refugees had to draw on the skills from their past lives in order to survive. Indeed, the schoolyard shooting has not been the only hurdle to overcome in the past 20 years.
Long Keo, 27, was among the 30 wounded during the shooting, having sustained a bullet wound to the abdomen. He recalls multiple surgeries throughout his childhood, going in and out of hospitals for years after the incident. And yet, when he looks back on his adolescence, surviving the shooting is not his defining struggle. Instead, he recalls the gang violence that gripped Stockton and nearly took his life on more than one occasion.
Several years ago, his living room was riddled with bullets from a drive-by shooting. Then, this past summer, his mother learned that the family would be evicted from their home. They were renting from a landlord who was on the brink of foreclosure. When I came to speak with the family about the 20th anniversary of the shooting they, understandably, were more interested in talking about their current housing crisis.
These smaller tragedies that have dotted the lives of Stockton’s Cambodian Americans perhaps explains why, there is little fanfare surrounding the 20th anniversary of the shooting. This is not to say that community members have become inured to violence and tragedy, but rather that there is a broader context of immigrant and refugee life in which the shooting must be discussed.
Still, on Friday night the Children’s Museum of Stockton held a small, invitation-only memorial event for the victims and heroes of 20 years ago. Today, the city’s local paper, The Stockton Record, will run a feature article looking back on the incident. And then there are those, like Chun, who find ways to “honor my sister’s memory everyday.”
“I could have taught at another school in the district,” said Chun. “But I chose to be here. Being here helps me let go of the tragedy, but still hold on to her.”
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