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Stockton is home to the 5th largest Cambodian refugee population nationwide

Stockton is home to one of the largest numbers of Cambodian refugees in the country
Stockton is home to one of the largest numbers of Cambodian refugees in the country 03:32

STOCKTON — It is Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, and we are highlighting the resilient Cambodian community.

Stockton is home to one of the largest numbers of Cambodian refugees in the country. Many of them arrived in the 1980s after escaping war and persecution.

Through hardship—here and abroad—this community has leaned on each other while keeping traditions alive.

In the shadows of the Vietnam War, President Richard Nixon ordered the secret bombings of Cambodia, aiming to root out the Vietcong. That military strategy only provoked a civil war and brought to power the communist regime known as the Khmer Rouge.

Just days before the fall of Phnom Penh and later Saigon, the United States evacuated American personnel and thousands of Cambodians. Refugees would soon resettle around the world, including in the U.S.

Today, Stockton ranks 5th in the nation with the most Cambodian refugees. A federal resettlement program enacted in 1980 allowed people like Phoeung Tes to put down roots in Stockton.

"Of course, in Cambodia at that time, it was so difficult to live so I had to escape from Cambodia because of the war and the Khmer Rouge," Tes said.

On this day, he's among several locals attending a blessing ceremony for an elder who has passed away.

"We come from the same country, so I feel like they're my brother and sister," Tes said.

The traditional chants are followed up with food offerings to the monks.

"People offer the food and then we pray for them and we dedicate the merit to the dead people," Tes said. "That's a very important time."

This ceremony is taking place at Aspara, the Asian Pacific self-development and residential association. Sovanna Koeurt is the executive director and also a Cambodian refugee.

"I've been here," Koeurt said. "I love this place because they give a lot of opportunity to everyone."

Koeurt said that Aspara was created 35 years ago by refugee families experiencing trauma and economic hardship while living at Park Village, an apartment complex it now runs.

Perhaps the biggest motivator came after a tragedy that shook them to their core.

"After the Cleveland shooting event in 1987, the community believed we had to live in a better place and we had to come together to bring our voice," Koeurt said.

That elementary school shooting claimed the lives of five young students—four of them were Cambodian. The back-to-back traumas would only bring the Cambodian community closer together.

Koeurt said, today, younger generations are giving back.

"The brother of one girl that got killed lives here and he is our role model here," Koeurt said. "That's the seed that we put in the ground and that grows, you know?"

From food distributions to programs like health care, job placement, and youth activities, Aspara aims to uplift its community while offering a safe space for new immigrants arriving in Stockton.

Aspara also partners with other local grassroots organizations, schools, temples and churches.

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