The Photo Issue 2015

After the Killing Fields: America's Cambodian Diaspora

Magnum photographer Pete Pin documents Cambodian refugees who've settled in America, primarily in communities struggling with poverty and inner-city violence.

by Pete Pin
Jul 16 2015, 4:00am

Sunny Vaahn, 25, a graduate of Carnegie Mellon, holds the refugee identification card of his family members. The photograph has taken upon their initial entry into a refugee camp after their arduous trek across the Thai border following the end of Khmer Rouge rule in Cambodia. They family made the trek because they were told that there was food on the other side of the border.

This article appears in the Photo Issue 2015

Photos by Pete Pin, from our collaboration with Magnum Photos and Magnum Foundation


In the 1980s, nearly 150,000 Cambodian refugees resettled in America, primarily in communities struggling with poverty and inner-city violence. Cambodian Diaspora is and ongoing project that examines the refugee-resettlement experience across generations in Cambodian-American communities. Three decades after the Killing Fields, the shadows of genocide can still be felt in the diaspora in America, manifesting across generations through a fragmentation of family narratives and a profound silence about its aftermath. Many Cambodians who lived through the genocide remain silent because they do not know how to speak about what they lived through, and also because they often do not speak the same language as their Cambodian-American children. The silence is exacerbated by intergenerational trauma—elders having survived the Killing Fields and their American children having survived the dangers of the inner city.

The Bronx, August 2011. Om Savaeth, 58, in the backyard of the Vaahn family home

From left to right, Joshua Vatthnavong 11, Joey Vatthnavong, 16, and Sanet Kek, 28, fish without poles at Ferry Point in the Bronx. "This is the way my father fished when he arrived to America," said Joey. Bronx New York, July 2011.

Three generations of the Duong family look at old family photos and documents from the refugee camps in the living room of their Bronx apartment, September 2011.

Football trophies accumulated by Sovann Ith, 23. The Bronx is a multi-racial community; Cambodian youth in the Fordham area played league football for 'racial respect' in the neighborhood.

Cambodian Buddhist temple in the Bronx, New York, which was collectively founded and financed in 1982 by community members shortly after their arrival in America. There is little engagement by the youth in temple activities, and many elders fears the eventual disappearance of the temples after the passing of the first generation.

Thon Khoun, 47, cooks in the kitchen of her Bronx apartment. Mrs. Khoun immigrated as a refugee in 1985 and is a single mother of four. Like many Cambodian refugees, she speaks no English and her children are incapable of speaking Khmer. Bronx, New York, October 2011.

Sovann Ith, 23, sits alongside his grandmother Somaly Ith, 83, in the living room of their Bronx apartment. The complex was once predominantly Cambodian but is now home to just five families. September, 2011.

Civics and English classroom at St Ritas Refugee Center in the Bronx, where many Cambodian refugees first received english lessons upon their arrival in the states. While most Cambodians received english instruction, many were still unable to learn the language given the high rates of illiteracy in their native tongue and the unique circumstances of their displacement. October 2011

Thanna Son, 15, and Moleca Mich, 19, in traditional Cambodian dress. Moleca Mich, who graduated Salutatorian in high school, is currently a junio in college. Like many Cambodians of her generation, she is incapable of speaking Khmer.

Chhan Hui, 59, with her grandchildren, Keinna Lawrence 2, and Shania Brown 6, in the living room of their Bronx apartment. Ms. Hui immigrated to the states in 1982 and, along with a sister, is the only survivor of her immediate family. Like many Cambodian American children, her grandchildren are interracial.