LOWELL, Mass. (AP) — Soben Pin wept as she tried to express her sorrow Friday over a fire that claimed the lives of five members of a Cambodian family and displaced dozens more in Massachusetts.
"They escaped from Cambodia, they came here to live the American dream, said Pin, who publishes a newspaper for Lowell's Cambodian community. "You escape from there and you die from a fire. How is that possible?"
In a city with the second-largest Cambodian-American population in the U.S., members of the immigrant community are rallying to help the surviving relatives of the family who lost three children and their parents, as well as more than 40 other Cambodians displaced by Thursday's pre-dawn fire in an apartment building.
Scores of volunteers have donated food, clothing, blankets and other household items to those now living in temporary housing and The Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association, a nonprofit that has been helping Cambodians in Lowell for three decades, has set up a fundraising campaign on the crowd-funding website gofundme.com.
"We have a close community," said Virak Uy, a board member of the CMAA. "Everybody kind of knows everybody."
Cambodians began coming to the U.S. in large numbers in the early 1980s, when the U.S. refugee program began accepting Cambodians from refugee camps in Thailand, where they went to escape the murderous Khmer Rouge regime. Cambodian activists say they were attracted to Lowell because of the availability of jobs in manual labor, as well as social services. Today, the city has dozens of Khmer restaurants, markets, variety stores and other small businesses.
The Cambodian population was listed at about 22,000 in the 2010 census, but many community activists put the number much higher — 35,000 to 40,000 — because many Cambodians are reluctant to fill out census forms.
"They worked hard, some started businesses, they helped each other, and pretty soon, they became a vibrant community before you knew it," said Pin, publisher of KhmerPostUSA, a Khmer-English biweekly newspaper.
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