Adventist Helps Cambodian Refugees to Health
Pamphlet aims at mercury warning, education
BY ELIZABETH LECHLEITNER, Editorial Assistant, Adventist News Network
n Cambodia, small talk -- much like life in the monsoon-drenched Southeast Asian country -- is mired in the rice fields. Locals are likely to ask each other, "How's your crop this year?" Not so for the nearly 20,000 Cambodian refugees resettled along the fish-rich Sacramento-San Joaquin river delta. Here, "How're your kids doing in school?" is a conversational gambit.
"Over the years, Cambodians have had more and more problems with their kids. So many of these kids are not very successful in school -- they are dropping out, joining gangs," says Sophat Sorn, himself a Cambodian immigrant, community social worker and a Buddhist-turned-Seventh-day Adventist pastor in Stockton, California.
Sorn says health and environmental researchers in California, trawling for an explanation beyond delinquency, discovered a link between learning and memory problems and a mercury-contaminated diet. In 2004, Sorn and a group of volunteers began distributing pamphlets throughout the region, warning Cambodians of the delta's mercury-laden fish.
HEALTH MESSAGE: Buddhist-turned-Adventist pastor Sophat Sorn hands out pamphlets to fellow Cambodian refugees in Stockton, California, warning them of the harmful mercury levels in many delta-area fish, which have been linked to learning and memory problems. [photos: Shannon Sorn/ANN]
On the front of each blue pamphlet, bold yellow lettering reads "Protect your health; Eat better fish." Inside, there's information on the link between memory loss and contaminated fish, how many fish are safe to eat, and a map of the delta indicating the tainted waterways.
The Port of Stockton, Sorn explains, is under a “fishing advisory,” but most native Khmers -- many of whom are subsistence fishers -- grew up reeling supper from the muddy Mekong to no ill effect and find it hard to believe the deceptively clear port is teeming with pollutants. With the pamphlets, printed in the Khmer language, Sorn hopes the Cambodians will learn to catch cleaner fish and raise healthier families.
"It's very strange information to them, you know, and they kind of resist the message at first. But we keep talking to them -- always very friendly," Sorn says. "We explain to them that sometimes in Cambodia we don't have any way to test the water, but here they do. Then they start to really listen. They tell us, 'Wow, we had no idea these fish could be bad for us.'"
Mercury, PCBs and pesticides leaking into the Port of Stockton, Sorn says, have accumulated to toxic levels in the area fish, which are ubiquitous in Cambodian cuisine.
"We had all these people eating fish two or three times a day, you know, where officials were recommending only eating them one or two times a month," Sorn remembers.
"When Cambodians see the sign that says, 'Don't eat the fish you catch here,' they interpret this to mean that the fish a few feet away are fine," says Sovanna Koeurt, director of Asian Pacific Self-development and Residential Association and a member of the Stockton Adventist Cambodian Group Sorn pastors.
"The water looks clean to them, so they don't believe the fish are bad." They're especially wary of warnings from government officials, Sorn says.
‘CLEAR’ PERIL: For Cambodian subsistence fishermen, years of fishing from the muddy Mekong skew their assessment of the deceptively clear Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers. They often continue fishing a few feet down from "no fishing" signs posted by Stockton city officials.
The suspicion, he adds, is understandable -- most Cambodian refugees survived the barbaric Pol Pot regime, which was responsible for at least 1.5 million deaths from execution, forced labor and starvation. "If they don't know you and trust you, they won't listen," Sorn says.
Sorn, who grew up in a Buddhist subsistence farming family in Cambodia, joined the Republican army fighting the Khmer Rouge in 1971 at age 18. When the Republic fell to Pol Pot in 1975, Sorn landed in a forced labor camp. Later, Sorn and his family fled to a Thai-Cambodian refugee border camp to escape fate in Cambodia's Killing Fields."
Eight years later, Sorn and his family were accepted for refugee relocation by the United States government and immigrated to California in 1991. He enrolled in community college, and was soon tapped by the local government to work with the Cambodian community in Stockton.
"I got to know a lot of people in the community, you know? I got to earn their trust," Sorn says. He founded United Cambodian Families, a local non-profit organization, in 2000, and has received recognition for his community service from the Blue Cross of California, the U.S. Congress and, this month, from the California Department of Public Health and Environmental Health Investigation Branch.
Over the past three years, Sorn and local volunteers have distributed the pamphlets to several thousand Cambodian refugees living in five different communities in the Stockton region. "This year, I delegate," he says. As program producer for Adventist World Radio programming broadcast from Guam, Sorn is busy translating news and information to an estimated 15 million Cambodian listeners.
"We want everybody to know, not just about the mercury in the fish, but also about Jesus," he says, adding that his motto, as a self-described "shy guy," is, "Don't talk much -- do much."