On Tuesday evening, approximately 80 people gathered at Oakland Senior High School in the upper theater for the Daze of Justice film showing and community healing event presented by the school district’s English Language Leaner and Multilingual Achievement Office and its Sanctuary Task Force.
The documentary was filmed by Mike Siv, an independent filmmaker from Cambodia. His film focuses on group of refugees who traveled back to Cambodia as civil parties in a trial against members of the Khmer Rouge, who were responsible for the genocide between 1975 and 1979. The evening opened with a brief history of Cambodia, and an overview of how refugees made their way to the United States because of the mass killings taking place in their home country.
Siv is one of the refugees who escaped the “killing fields” (locations where millions of people were killed by the Khmer Rouge) and shared some of his experiences coming to America with his mother after they were forced to leave his brother and father behind. He talked about the struggles he dealt with growing up as a refugee, and not having the opportunity to tell his story. He described the feeling of coming home from school and seeing his mother crying in the kitchen, but not completely understanding why. “Growing up, I always worried about saying the wrong words about war to my mom, because I didn’t want to make her cry,” said Siv.
Siv described film as a powerful tool to tell unshared stories. “Once I found out there was a trial in Cambodia, and that there was the possibility of that trial being the only one, that there would be no trial ever again, I felt I had to go. I always thought our story has to be told by us. I knew that if I didn’t take that opportunity to tell our story, that it would be missed,” said Siv.
Siv doesn’t see himself as a traditional filmmaker who will continue to produce films; he just wanted to capture untold moments within Cambodian history. His goal is to motivate younger generations to learn about their history and start telling their stories as well. “I want to help the younger generation make sense of what happened in Cambodia,” said Siv.
The film lasted approximately an hour. Afterwards, event participants made their way to the Oakland High library to engage in discussion and “healing circles” led by leaders of the community, such as student school board members and Sanctuary Task Force members. The Oakland Unified School District is a “sanctuary school district.” This means that the district does not require proof of legal immigration status when students enroll. The school board reaffirmed the status of the district as a sanctuary school district by passing a resolution in December, 2016.
Students also receive support from the office of English Language Leaner and Multilingual Achievement (ELLMA). ELLMA promotes professional dual language training to ensure OUSD students are well prepared for a multilingual world.
In the healing circles, participants focused on talking about what they believe healing looks like and emotions that came about for them after watching film. Many participants fought back tears as they described the pain they felt finally understanding what their families had gone through during the Cambodian genocide.
Enasia Mc-Elvaine was one of the community leaders at the event, and represents the student body as a member of the OUSD school board. She is not from Cambodia, but sees herself as an ally of the group. She spoke about the importance of understanding what people from other cultures experience. “I understand. I very much understand, even though the time, setting, and place was different. The trauma and the impact is very much the same, the frustration and pain that you feel—I also can connect. There are many who can understand and connect with what you are going through,” said Mc-Elvaine.
Chanfou Saelee is a leader with Oakland’s Cambodian community and has worked with a handful of the students who were at the event. Saelee talked about the ongoing issue of deportation, not only of Cambodian refugees but of other ethnic groups. “This is an issue that goes across ethnic boundaries, and this event is a good segue into having communities come together and fight against the issue as one,” said Saelee.
“As somebody who cares deeply for all people within our community and works directly with many of our immigrant families, including first and second-generation students, I wanted to make sure that we were really coming together as a community,” said event organizer Nicole Knight, the executive director of the district’s English Language Leaner and Multilingual Achievement Office.
Knight is also the head of the school district’s Sanctuary Task Force, and has done a lot of work in starting a protocol for in case there are Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids on campus. The protocol is made for school leaders to follow in the event of any ICE activity on campus or in the community.
Knight said the film event was inspired by worries about immigration raids and deportation. “This event in particular focused on southeast Asian refugees and was initiated after learning that the Department of Homeland Security was targeting Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees with past criminal records and detaining and separating them. We also learned that it affected one of our community members. So, we wanted to hold this event to create awareness around the issue and provide a space for people to tell their stories and for people to listen to them,” said Knight.
Knight believes that is important not to just talk about community healing, but to put those words into action to affect change — “something that actually lives within our classrooms, schools, and our communities,” said Knight.
This includes making classrooms “safe and inclusive spaces,” she said, and “thinking about the world we are trying to create, and who are the leaders that we want to cultivate within in our students. The work of the Sanctuary Task Force is to also help our educators create spaces within their classrooms where they can engage in conversations around issues that are affecting them within their community.”
Siv said he hopes that people were able to take away many different messages from the film. But, in particular, he wanted to convey was a lesson about life itself. “Life for anybody in general is going to be difficult. However, for people who have gone through genocide, it’s extremely unfair. How does one get through all that? These things shouldn’t happen, it’s wrong. So, the message is: Where do we find peace, and not have to live this way?” said Siv.
To conclude the evening, Siv shared information about resources like the Asian Pacific Islander Outreach Center and East Bay Asian Youth Center for people who are looking for other outlets of support.
Next Tuesday at Oakland Senior High School there will be an Educators Curriculum Workshop at which teachers will discuss ways to teach students about history and current events. The workshop will take place at 4:30 and is open to members of the community.