White House Visit Cambodian Community Project

Holly HamFor months EJ Wilson, Director of Operations and Strategic Planning and Pitsami Norm, Director of Public Relations from the Houston International Trade Development Council, Inc. have worked behind the scenes in the Rosharon Cambodian Farming Community with Achalesh Amar, Houston Chapter Coordinator of Sewa, Dario Lipovac, The Director of YMCA Refugee Resettlement Services, Jeff Watkins VP of Global Initiatives, and Lisa Oum, Rosharon Community Project Leader.

Holly Ham Executive Director of White House Initiatives on Asian American and Pacific Islanders read about the work that was being done and contacted HITDC to coordinate an on-site visit. She was coming to assess the needs of the community in hopes of matching federal resources with their needs.

Holly Ham was appointed on November 13, 2017 to the position of Executive Director of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs), housed in the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, DC. In this capacity, she is responsible for directing the efforts of the White House Initiative and the Presidential Advisory Commission on AAPIs to advise federal agency leadership on the implementation and coordination of federal programs as they relate to AAPIs across executive departments and agencies. The White House Initiative on AAPIs works with these entities to improve the quality of life and opportunities for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders through increased access to, and participation in, federal programs in which they may be underserved.

Holly Ham

The temperature is dropping every minute and with each emergency weather update comes another round of school closures and sections of highway.  Freezing rain is coming down in sheets and the temperature is dropping by the minute, streets are becoming undrivable. The much anticipated, visit of Holly Ham the Executive Director of White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders “WHIAAPI” is being tested. We just received word that the main WHIAAPI event has been postponed. But a team from the Houston International Trade Development Council is working through the night to assure the visit, goes as scheduled. The weather updates are dire. The phone keeps ringing with others wanting to know if the visit is still going to take place. The answer is always the same. Yes!!! Holly Ham is committed to visiting the Cambodian farming community in Rosharon, Texas.

The ride out to Rosharon is very sobering. Absence is the bumper to bumper traffic that usually grips Houston, Texas. The ice is building up on the freeways and conditions are getting worse but our team is in good spirits.

It has been almost five months since Harvey dumped 19 trillion gallons of water on Houston. And four months to the day that we first stepped into the small Cambodian farming community in Rosharon, Texas. But today was different. The initial chaos, displaced families, and uncertainty has been muted by a steady drum beat of hope. Even in below freezing temperature.

Entering into the community from Summer Lane brings the trip into focus. The first house we pass is stripped bare. It is a sobering reminder, there is still much work to do. The slow drive down Summer Lane has the entire team quiet and focused. Plastic from a damaged greenhouse flaps in the cold frigid wind.

Our first stop, the home of Mr. Houen Pok (76 years) and his wife Mrs Pok (72 years). Their home was declared a total loss and has been demolished. They are currently living in a makeshift structure they built. In below freezing temperature, their only protection is 8 mil plastic that shields them from the elements, a donated tent, small space heater, and an electric blanket. They are one of the extreme cases in the small farming community. Like many other farmers in the community, Mr. Houen Pok and his wife relied solely on their crop production for an income source. Harvey came and not only destroyed their home, but it also took away their economic engine.

Our team decides to walk to the next home. The distance is short but the sheer destruction along the way seem miles long. We arrive at the home of Vann Vannak. The driveway is lined with orange trees and almost looks normal until you walk further onto the property and witness      firsthand the unforgiving nature of Harvey. Despite the loss of his house and crops he is in good spirits. Harvey has destroyed his home, ravaged his greenhouses and has forced him to live in a 4×6 foot space that use to house his chickens. As Holly Ham surveys the damage and peers into the 4×6 structure, she turns and looks at the team and says, “This is not acceptable, no one should have to live like this”.

These are the stories that many do not hear of. His story is just another glimpse into the post Harvey recovery.

For our team it is a moment that brings out many emotions.

After saying our goodbyes, we load up into the warmth of our transport, but it doesn’t feel right. For us, this is a visit and we can leave and return to our safe lives but for them, this is their reality.

As we turn onto Amy Lane it is hard not to get emotional. The road is unpaved and deeply pitted but compared to the next house we visit the road is in better shape. Saphy Pech, the eldest daughter, from a family of eight has been struggling with her health. She is the organizer in the family, but Harvey took away her ability to organize effectively. Their house was completely totaled by Harvey. They are living in a one room, one-bathroom structure the family built immediately after Harvey. It has no heat or kitchen. They are forced to use a microwave outside on a two-foot porch. As we tour their destroyed home Holly listens intently as John explains to her the immediate needs of the family.

The trip is now coming to an end and as we stand in the warehouse of John Boph engrossed in deep conversation and discussing the community and its needs, Holly Ham and her White House team are engaged, asking questions and planning. This outreach began four months ago and through all the ups and downs, our message reached the highest office in the land. They heard our plea and they responded. Today, is a TURNING POINT!!!

The Houston International Trade Development Council Hosted Rosharon Cambodian Farmers Community site visit

Special Thanks to:

Holly Ham, Executive Director of White House Initiative on Asian American and Pacific Islanders,

KimOanh Nguyen-Lam, Ph.D., Program Director, Office of English Language Acquisition, U.S. Department of Education,

Melissa Fwu, Associate Director, White House Office Of Public Liaison

Val Thompson, President, Houston International Trade Development Council, Inc. (HITDC)

SEWA International

Kavita Tewary, Executive Director

Achalesh Amar, Houston Chapter Coordinator

Shravanthi Thirunagari, Livelihood Projects Coordinator

Lisa Oum, Lead Case Manager

Phan Prak, Community Liaison Officer

John Boph, Community Leader

YMCA

Jeff Watkins, YMCA VP for Global Initiatives

Dario Lipovac, The Director of YMCA Refugee Resettlement Services

Business Leaders

Wayne & Tammy Nguyen, Owners of Maba Pan Asian Diner

Sherry Cauble, Co-Owner, C.C. Hunter Construction

Bryan Jiang, Founder/CEO, NEWZILL

Peta-Gay Ledbetter, Director of Clinical Services at Alliance

Edward Alexander, Founder, Excl Executive Car & Limo

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