Around the time Vietnamese refugees started settling in City Heights in the 1970s, Cambodians displaced by the Vietnam War also found their way to our community.
Less than half the size of California, Cambodia is located in Southeast Asia, surrounded by Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos. During the Vietnam War, Cambodia tried to maintain neutrality in the hopes that other armies would respect its borders and not fight in its territories. However, the North Vietnamese, supported by communist allies, decided to camp out in the jungles of Cambodia near the Vietnamese border. In its efforts to defeat the communists, the U.S. government began bombing Cambodia, turning it into another battlefront in the Vietnam War.
Upheaval and chaos ensued. Multiple factions within Cambodia warred with one another to gain power. One of those factions was the Khmer Rouge led by the communist revolutionary Pol Pot. Under the Khmer Rouge regime, captured in the movie The Killing Fields, 21 percent of the country’s population, about 1.7 million people, would lose their lives to execution, starvation or disease.
In 1975, the Khmer Rouge attacked the capital, Phnom Penh, and took it over. The city was overcrowded with more than two million refugees displaced by war. As the last few U.S transport helicopters evacuated people from the city, children observed the evacuation and waved goodbye. The Khmer Rouge shelled the evacuation zone, firing mortars into crowds of people.
During the 1980s, more than 114,000 Cambodians immigrated to the United States with large concentrations settling in Stockton, Long Beach, Los Angeles, and a fraction coming to San Diego, specifically City Heights.
Some of the earliest Cambodian refugees came to the U.S. because of groups known as Voluntary Resettlement Agencies, or VOLAGs. These agencies were often affiliated with American churches. They were originally set up in 1975 to assist with the first wave of Vietnamese refugees. VOLAGs were abundant in City Heights. They took on the responsibility of finding sponsors who would assume financial and personal responsibility for refugee families.
Refugees are overwhelmingly resettled in metropolitan areas with large foreign-born populations, such as City Heights. It makes sense because they need access to local, state, and federal support to help them succeed economically and socially. Affordable housing, health care, and access to jobs – essential to refugees’ survival in a new country – are more easily found in metropolitan areas.
City Heights was a welcoming environment for the Cambodian refugees. By the time they arrived here, the first wave of Vietnamese refugees had already blazed a trail for immigrants from all over the world to make their home here.
Jon Luna is a first-generation Filipino-American who was raised in City Heights. A San Diego State University graduate, he still lives there and works regularly as a substitute teacher at Hoover High School and other City Heights public schools. He is also pursuing a master’s degree in history from the University of San Diego. Jon’s research comes from the archives of the San Diego History Center.