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It Wasn’t Easy to Welcome 25,000 Refugees, But Boy, Is This Town Glad It Did

April 28, 2014
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It Wasn’t Easy to Welcome 25,000 Refugees, But Boy, Is This Town Glad It Did
Fausto Giaccone/Redux
Thousands fled Cambodia's killing fields to land in Lowell, Massachusetts. A new exhibit reflects on the immigrants' contributions.

In the 1980’s, 25,000 Cambodian refugees poured into Lowell, Massachusetts, escaping the killing fields of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime, but putting pressure on Lowell’s public schools and social services. Former City Manager James Campbell told the Lowell Sun that accommodating the needs of so many poor and non-English-speaking people was a “logistical nightmare.” But boy is Lowell glad it welcomed them.

The city built more schools and implemented bilingual programs to educate the refugee children. In return, the Cambodians settled down in the community and thrived. Campbell said that today there are 350 Asian-owned businesses in Lowell that provide jobs to people of all ethnicities. The Cambodian community also started the annual Southeast Asian Water Festival, which has become a major event in Lowell, and have shared their culture with the town in countless other ways.

Over the next few months, Lowell is taking a moment to look back on its history with Cambodian immigrants, and reflect on the arrival of more recent immigrants from such places as Iraq and Burma, through a special exhibit, “Lowell: A City of Refugees, a Community of Citizens.”

Highlights of the exhibit include stories kids wrote and pictures they drew shortly after they arrived, about the atrocities they’d faced in Cambodia. One boy wrote about how when he was five, the Khmer Rouge tied up his sister in the woods and left her to die, until one soldier spared her. The exhibit is dedicated to Dorothea Tsapatsaris, a teacher who worked with many refugees in the 80’s and preserved their work, much of which tells the story of their daily lives in Cambodia.

An interactive map tracks the immigrants’ movements from Cambodia to refugee camps to Lowell, and the exhibit tells the story of the city’s history as it welcomed its newcomers. Referring to that massive ’80s influx of refugees, Dorothea’s husband George Tsapatsaris, who was the Superintendent of Schools back then, said, “We slowly began to see the light at the end of the tunnel, and today the Cambodian population is an integral part of our community and our schools.”

Over the last two years, 400 new refugee children have come to Lowell, and because Lowell is learning from its own history of immigration through this exhibit, many see this as a sign that the cycle of American renewal in one city has begun again.

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