The Story of Our Young Apsaras

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By Mona Afary, Director of CERI

In March 2008, The Center for Empowering Refugees and Immigrants (CERI) launched its youth services program: Reviving Our Youths’ Aspirations (ROYA). It was named in memory of Roya Forouzesh, a close supporter and a counselor who passionately worked with at-risk youth and their families at our center.

In July, 2011, ROYA initiated a prevention/early intervention program, specifically to serve young Cambodian American women. This would not have happened without the loving support of Alex Briscoe, the director of the Alameda County’s Health Care Social Services agency.  With Briscoe’s encouragement and the MHSA funding provided by Prop 63, the young women’s program became a reality.

Since its inception, CERI has been a witness to the great dangers the daughters and granddaughters of its Cambodian clients are confronted with in their daily lives. This young, innocent, beautiful and vulnerable generation of Cambodian American women, often cannot envision a positive a future for themselves. Many  drop out of school, join gangs, become involved in robberies, become pregnant or fall prey to underground sex trafficking. Chronic violence has desensitized many of our youth.

Our young women’s group, Apsara’s Warriors works to provide life skills and support on many levels. Our mentors and educators become involved with assisting our young women to navigate their day to day realities.  They offer tutoring, mentoring, school advocacy, psychological and emotional support, health education and creative expression. They strive to create an environment in which the young women can remember their dreams and goals and believe it is possible to achieve them. One young woman in the group says it best, “When I am at CERI I feel more like myself, I remember who I am.”

With wrap around support, guidance and mentorship, the girls begin to create new points of reference for themselves.  Our mission is to nurture the confidence and leadership necessary, for each young woman to be able to have access to opportunities, in which she can realize her full potential.  Our program encourages a healthy, thriving life style and rebuilds hope and strength for the young women and their communities.

ROYA is unique not only because it provides a range of services for Cambodian American youth but also because it is connected with the parents of these children. It can therefore make much more of an intergenerational change in the dynamics of the parent-child relationship, helping clients to overcome communication, generational, and cultural barriers as well as estrangement. In addition to clinical services, it takes an all-encompassing approach, providing home visits, workshops, support groups, parent education, and family counseling. Through these wrap around efforts, closeness, healing, compassion, and understanding is generated among family members.  When individuals and families heal, a powerful momentum begins to spread into the community.

This is especially important as many of these young people have no idea about the extent of the violence and hardships that their parents experienced and how this may cause certain traumas. Most of the young people have either been sheltered from the truth by their parents, or their parents are too traumatized to talk about the experience, or there are language barriers between the parents and their children (i.e., the parents speak Cambodian, the children speak English). Nonetheless, these children can experience vicarious trauma. Once the children learn about their parents’ experiences, it opens them up to a new perspective about what they want to do with their lives and offers a new sense of cultural heritage and pride in their community. The family can also begin a deeper level of healing.
Community partnerships are another important strategy employed by the program. CERI is actively cultivating working relationships with other community-based social service, legal, and educational providers, as well  law enforcement officials, to establish a network of support services for our youth program clients. Current partners include: the UC Berkeley Cambodian Students Association, Laney College’s Project Bridge program, ABC (a paid apprenticeship program), Bay Area Legal Aid (a nonprofit legal aid organization for low-income individuals), Banteay Srei (a program established in 2004 to address the increasing number of young Southeast Asian women engaged in or at-risk of sexual exploitation), La Clinica (a community health clinic), and Serve the People (a grassroots group for Asian/Pacific Islanders).
ROYA has been honored to enjoy the support of a range of Bay Area funders, including: Cisco Silicon Valley Impact Grant Program, Devata Giving Circle, the Long Family Foundation, the Irving foundation, the San Francisco Foundation, the Siegel Foundation, the Y & H Soda Foundation, the Van Loben Sels/Rembe Rock Foundation, and the Danny Weinstein Foundation. We are profoundly moved by the generosity and trust these foundations have bestowed upon CERI.

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