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Forty years after genocide, a Philly Cambodian organization helps refugees heal over dinner

October 2, 2019 Category: FeaturedPurposeShort
Fleeing Cambodia, Nary Kith and her family stayed in two refugee camps before coming to the United States in 1984. While Kith, then around 4 years old, had made it to the U.S., her personal and her people’s struggle was hidden.

“We’re not just trauma victims, but we’re survivors of genocide,” said Kith, now a marriage and family therapist and cofounder of KITHS Integrated and Targeted Human Services, a resource organization in the Logan section of Philadelphia for Cambodian refugees.

In 2017, the Trump Administration’s harsh rhetoric surrounding refugees sparked Kith and her sister to action. They opened KITHS as a way to support refugees, offering services like help applying for Medicaid or scheduling doctors appointments, and assisting them in integration.

The Cambodian Civil War lasted from 1968 to 1975, bringing the Khmer Rouge to power. The conflict led to the Cambodian genocide. About two million members of minority groups and those with ties to the former government were killed. Many fled, like the Kiths.

“How do we heal from that as a community?” she wondered. “And what do we do to help each other take accountability and be a part of the change?”

Kith decided six months ago, the healing can take the form of a dinner discussion series, which she’s been planning. Cambodian refugees will meet on a monthly basis around the city and share their experiences in Cambodia and immigrating to the U.S. While Kith’s initial concept is still forming, she envisions it will be called “From Genocide to Tableside.”

Many refugees haven’t processed their trauma from more than 40 years ago, Kith said. But with traditional Cambodian food and sitting among their community, she thinks they will feel more comfortable sharing their stories.

Mental health therapy isn’t accepted in the Cambodian community, Kith said. Many Cambodian refugees suffer from PTSD, depression and anxiety related to their war experiences, but don’t want to be labeled “crazy” seeking traditional therapy, she added.

The conversations are important to Kith, so that refugees feel heard and their children can learn about their family’s history.

“When you develop a program that involves food and conversation, people tend to respond differently,” she said.

Sharing this trauma would prove therapeutic, Kith said, but their stories of triumph and hard work in America would also be rewarding to impart.

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The first dinner will be at KITH’s Logan location, but other restaurants and community organizations can offer their spaces.

“It’s a community effort, It’s not just KITHS,” she said. “It’s about getting people together to start the healing process.”

The “From Genocide to Tableside” discussion series will start by summer.

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