California State University, Long Beach
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Professor Watches Over Local Communty’s Health Issues

Published: December 1, 2008

Leakhena Nou

Photo courtesy of Leakhena Nou

Long Beach is home to the second-largest Cambodian community outside of Asia (after Paris), and a neighborhood along Anaheim Street is called “Little Phnom Penh.” Keeping an eye on that vibrant community’s health issues, which range from the scars of genocide to the sensitivity of health/social service providers, is CSULB’s Leakhena Nou.

Nou, a member of the Sociology Department since 2005, has followed her research from Long Beach to Lowell, Mass. — with two of the largest Cambodian communities in the United States — to the Southeast Asian nation itself. In 2006, she and student volunteers organized a community forum, “Social Stress and the Legacy of the Khmer Rouge Part II,” as part of the Department of Sociology’s screening of the film “Angry Skies: A Cambodian Journey.” She also participated that year in the National Cambodian-American Health Initiative in Chicago. At the 2008 President’s Forum on International Human Rights: Modern Genocides and Global Responsibility at CSULB, Nou was an invited speaker on a panel addressing Cambodian health issues; she discussed the lingering effects of the 1970s Khmer Rouge genocide and invited a genocide survivor to join her and offer first-hand insights. Nou is also an active organizer of the Shared Suffering, Shared Resilience forums, which celebrate the strengths of the Cambodian people while allowing them to offer personal testimonies that might eventually be used in international trials of the Khmer Rouge. Her commitment to protecting human rights has also led her to speak on the topic to diverse audiences including legal professionals at the Santa Clara University School of Law and to a special thematic group on human rights paradigms and movements at the Fall 2008 International Sociological Association conference in Barcelona, Spain.

“The Khmer Rouge experience that negatively affects nearly every Cambodian alive today underlines my cultural obligations as a scholar and as a woman,” Nou says. “I am both personally and professionally affected by this history, just like so many Cambodians. I am affected as a medical sociologist and as an academic. I feel it is my personal responsibility to connect academia with the Cambodian community in an effort to organize social change. It takes time and commitment, but I see this aspect of my work as an extension of my role as an applied social researcher.”

The problems are many. “I’ve found manifest psychosomatic and psycho-emotional symptoms linked to the Khmer Rouge genocide,” she said. “I’ve found poor adjustment and resettlement patterns. There is intergenerational conflict, drug addiction and out-of-control gambling. Many do not feel accepted by mainstream society. Another significant problem is high unemployment and underemployment, without enough Cambodians in professional careers.”

One key to addressing many of these problems, Nou believes, is greater cultural sensitivity on the part of Western health care providers. “It is important for Western health care providers to be educated in cultural sensitivity as well as competency,” she said. “What Western health care providers see as obstacles need to be seen as opportunities. The existence of language and cultural barriers represent a lack of respect for indigenous health belief systems.”

As an example, Nou points to the role of faith. “Many Cambodians are Buddhists,” she explained. “Today’s health care providers need to know a little about Buddhist philosophy to be sensitive to the needs of their Cambodian patients. They need to know how the Buddhist philosophy can be used as a healing method in their treatment practices. An example is meditation, which can be useful when used in conjunction with prescription medications. Look at exercise and even holy water blessing ceremonies. I suggest Western health care providers visit Buddhist temples and have themselves blessed with holy water – this couldn’t hurt and might help broaden their perspectives.”

Nou is a frequent visitor to Cambodia. “I want Cambodians to know I care and that many others care about their situation,” she said. “I want to help bridge the many barriers that hinder their individual health and well-being as well as their community’s collective social health and cohesion. If they want to be part of the solution to their problems, Cambodians need to understand that the outside world is reluctant to address their needs. Cambodians must speak for themselves. They must speak about injustice and the lack of quality health care, social services and educational resources.”

Nou taught at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (2001-02), served as Dean of the College of Social Sciences at the University of Cambodia’s College of Social Sciences in Phnom Penh (2003), and was a visiting scholar at NYU’s Asian/Pacific/American Studies Program and Institute in the summer of 2004. She completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the Institute for Asian American Studies, University of Massachusseets (Boston), in 2004-05. She earned her B.A. in Sociology from CSU Fullerton (1991), her M.S.W. at Columbia University (1993), her M.A. (1997) and Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Hawaii at Manoa (2002).

Nou wants her research and publications to serve as channels through which the Cambodian community can express their concerns. “It is important for the community to understand that they need to reach out for help or no one will know their suffering,” she said. “They must not be ashamed to ask for help, or even to make demands. They need to be willing to be critical when they don’t see the system working for them.”

Nou’s commitment to health and justice for Cambodian genocide survivors is unwavering. “I want to work toward the establishment of an applied social research institute for Cambodians,” she said. “I want to encourage the genocide survivors, at times facilitated by their children, to record their experiences to be used as potential evidence in the impending hybrid Khmer Rouge Tribunal or the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, where the perpetrators of the genocide will be tried for war crimes. I have already begun working with academic institutions, think tanks, representatives of the United Nations and local and international organizations and will continue to strive to develop a mechanism by which Cambodians might finally have their voices heard in the prosecution of the Khmer Rouge for its crimes against humanity.”