By Kai Curry
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
The COVID-19 pandemic is officially over in the United States, for now. For the most part, even at some medical facilities, face mask requirements are down. It’s up to each individual whether or not they get the newest vaccine, while still highly recommended by official health organizations. Regardless of one’s view on the current status of the virus, we still need to keep up with information regarding the pandemic, its effects, and how to stop such a thing happening the next time. Not only stopping a pandemic, it’s also to stop the fallout of it—the lost jobs, the lost loved ones, the lost communities that did not feel seen, heard, nor helped during the height of COVID-19.
“We were the last community to receive information and PPE’s…an underserved community, with no funding, and no community center, always the last to get information from the county,” said Khanthala (Kayla) Somvilay, executive director of the Lao Community Service Center (LCSC). “Based on my understanding, they don’t think of us first.”
Many of the smaller Asian communities in our region had very few formal channels to pass along information and assistance during the pandemic. They were lumped into the larger group of “Asians” and once larger populations, such as the Chinese, Japanese, or Vietnamese, received help, the job was seemingly considered done.
“Our communities were dropping off like flies,” said Thyda Ros, co-executive director of Khmer Community of Seattle King County (KCSKC). “To this day, I keep calling the King County Examiner’s Office. I want to see those numbers.” Ros is talking about finding out how many local Khmer died during the pandemic. “They still don’t have those numbers. They’re not required to report…Same thing with the hospitals.” They collect, but they do not have to report. Or it could be that the data collected does not include detailed information about ethnicities such as Khmer or Laotian, so there is no way to know for sure.
But even if KCSKC does receive the numbers, they won’t tell the whole story. The story of elders isolated in their homes—their own families scared to enter, no idea how to use a computer, how to get a vaccine or a COVID-19 test. Of the already existing generational trauma that got worse for communities already used to being let down. Of people like Ros, her counterpart, Stephanie Ung, or Somvilay and her colleagues, who dropped everything to help.
“People were afraid, they stayed home, people with rent issues, elderly parents they had to take care of, people with disabilities, they stayed home, there weren’t any resources,” Somvilay recalls. “When King County said, ‘We’re going to help with rent or food,’ some people said they would apply, so we’d help them with applications.” Somvilay and her peers became the “middle person” for their communities, helping them get the resources and information needed.
It was all volunteer based.
“Both Stephanie and I, we quit our jobs,” said Ros. She and Ung are paid now by the organization which they helped keep running, but they weren’t then. Now, both the Khmer and Lao communities are looking at what post-pandemic means for them. With the help of a grant from Washington State Department of Health’s COVID-19 Community-Driven Outreach Program, and with APartnership, who seek partners for the program from qualified Asian organizations and groups, LCSC and KCSKC are conducting outreach and education to address the needs related to COVID-19. Their effort ranges from a survey to a vaccination clinic to distributing COVID-19 tests, from having their staff arrange an event at a local park to driving to someone’s house to give aid.
“Our community is still experiencing challenges that were exacerbated because of the pandemic,” said Ung. “Things like transportation and language access were issues before the pandemic…on top of that, digital literacy was an even greater issue because all of the resources that our elders and families usually interacted with in person moved online.” Among other things KCSKC is using their grant “to talk about the different types of emergencies that our communities might face.” No one was prepared for shelter-in-place during the COVID-19 lockdowns, for instance. “So much institutional emergency preparedness is focused on evacuation-related emergencies,” Ung pointed out. What about wildfire smoke? Snowstorms?
For the Khmer community, it’s also about connecting the generations, and providing a new way forward from long-held trauma.
“The pandemic was a really traumatic incident,” Ung acknowledged, then added: “Our families have also experienced something very traumatic, which is the Khmer Rouge. And then, on top of that, resettlement in the U.S. For the most part, our families have survived.” However, “they didn’t have adequate mental health support when they arrived in the U.S., or other resources to navigate processing or healing.” Ung and her colleagues want to make sure that doesn’t happen again because “a lot of that trauma has been transmitted across generations” and no one is accustomed to talking about it. Therefore, KCSKC now holds community gatherings in a safe space, for the young and old, “so that we don’t internalize the trauma from the pandemic and pass that on to future generations.”
Having to try doing all of this without a community center, both KCSKC and LCSC rely upon their community temples, neighborhood spaces, such as Renton Community Center, parks, and other partnerships to find locations, whether that is for providing paperwork support or a large event.
“Most of us came here as refugees, most of our families,” Somilvay said, which highlights the importance of “a safe place, a gathering place, to call our home…We’re looking for any opportunities to get a cultural center for our community.” She added, “our community really appreciates the help we’ve received from the Department of Health…We have a lot to tackle and if people are interested [in helping], we’re open.” The local Lao community, which is comprised of many different ethnicities, is spread out from Pierce to King to Snohomish counties, and even in the TriCities area of eastern Washington.
“We don’t have a central place to disperse information.” Therefore, they often utilize cultural events, such as the Lao New Year Celebration, to also conduct COVID-19 outreach and education.
KCSKC utilizes spaces such as the Rainier Arts Center in Columbia City or their community garden in West Seattle, which the elders have kept going for two decades. The Khmer community in the Seattle area has “been here over 40 years and still no community center,” said Ung.
Have faith will travel, the saying goes. It’s important to show up, and with strong and caring leadership, they have shown up. LCSC and KCSKC have put themselves at the forefront of moving their communities forward post-pandemic, learning from not their shortcomings but the shortcomings of the system at large, so that next time, they will look out for each other even better.
To learn more about the work of the Khmer Community of Seattle King County to address COVID-19, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (206) 637-5200. To learn more about the work of the Lao Community Service Center of Washington to address COVID-19, email email@example.com or call (206) 588-5180.
Made possible in part by the Washington State Department of Health through a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This information does not necessarily reflect the official policies of the Washington State Department of Health or the Department of Health and Human Services.
Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.