Cambodian Teens’ Tragic Family History Inspires Art to Honor Genocide Survivors

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Three Cambodian-American teens from Santa Rosa are creating a public mural that weaves together the beauty and tragedy of Cambodia’s past.  The mural will be dedicated during an open ceremony on November 18th, after which it will be displayed at Vista Family Health Center in Santa Rosa.  The teens have a goal of traveling with the mural to U.S. schools and libraries, so they can educate their peers about this under-represented piece of history. There is an online fundraising site to raise the money needed for the project.

Amy, Vichaka, and Mathilda are teen apprentices at ArtStart, a Santa Rosa non-profit that mentors promising youth artists.  With the help of ArtStart and another American apprentice there named Amelia, they will complete this ambitious piece of work.  The mural will depict facets of Cambodia’s rich culture and will also be a public memorial to honor the survivors and those who died in the Cambodian genocide under the Khmer Rouge regime of Pol Pot during the 1970’s.

“This project is my way to keep our culture alive and undying in America. says Vichaka.  “I was excited and scared to create the mural, but I wanted to share Cambodia’s beauty and history, and to have people know that it exists.”  Through working on the mural, all three young women learned more about their own family’s background and loss.  They have found immense pride in the bravery of their parents and other relatives, and also compassion and grief for what the living and the dead experienced.  They have discovered their roots—and it is their hope that other families that suffered from the tragedy will be able to heal in similar ways.

“Because of the mural, my family has begun to tell me stories.  I have gained such a huge respect for them and have begun to understand why they were so insistent that I be grateful for this life in America…because, at my age, some of them were struggling to survive” Amy says.

“The girls had not known that their parents were survivors of the genocide,” says Dr. Lucia Roncalli, M.D., “and doing the mural opened family conversations that have been healing for both generations.”  Dr. Roncalli works with Bay Area torture and genocide survivors at the Vista Family Health Center.  Along with ArtStart, she was instrumental in getting the project off the ground.

These young artists recognize that art is a powerful tool that can help people deal with painful issues.   “In this mural, the things that I cannot explain through words are spoken, and the feelings that I do not know how to let out will hopefully come out through art.” says Mathilda.  “I no longer feel the nervousness that I felt so strongly before, because I now have a voice and something important to say.”

The mural will be unveiled at the dedication ceremony on Sunday, November 18th at ArtStart – 716 Bennet Valley Road, Santa Rosa, CA.  The event will include a blessing of the mural by Venerable Un Chim, the monk who heads Watt Meangkolvorn, the local Cambodian temple.  There will be Cambodian food, poetry and traditional dance performances.  The mural will then be moved to the Vista Family Health Center at 3569 Round Barn Blvd, Santa Rosa, CA.

Amy, Vichaka, and Mathilda were able to start their art apprenticeship in June 2012, thanks to a loan from an anonymous local donor who believes in keeping history, art, and culture alive.  An online fundraising campaign to make the project completion possible started on October 2nd and will end on November 10th They have only a total of 40 days to raise these funds.  Those who want to help make the project possible can do so at .

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