Cultural pride is guiding a Point Breeze resident’s efforts to help the city’s Cambodian population to excel.
When Rorng Sorn arrives at Bala Cynwyd’s Hilton Hotel Saturday evening for the 34th annual Cambodian New Year Celebration, she will experience the gathering as a reveler and a realist.
The fourth-year executive director of the Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia certainly will enjoy the cultural performances and camaraderie while remaining mindful that her fellow Southeast Asians need more direction and intervention to thrive in America.
“Knowing there are so many struggling families motivates me to make differences in their lives, with the hardest part being the awareness of having limited time to do all I desire,” the 44-year-old said. “Still, we have much to be proud of, and our ceremony will express that, especially through children’s dances and a video montage.”
South Philly, Logan and Olney contain the city’s highest concentration of Cambodians, the resident of 17th and Mifflin streets said, so she has aligned her organization, which has a center at 2416-18 S. Seventh St. and in North Philly, with agencies that are helping her to address their most pressing matters — health woes, socioeconomic setbacks, educational deficiencies and immigration dilemmas. Advocating for more than 1,000 individuals has enabled Sorn to intensify her appreciation for her heritage while also reminding her of one of life’s constants.
“People suffer everywhere and I understand very much what my people go through,” the native of Cambodia’s Kampong Speu Province said. “So many of us carry so much baggage because of a number of circumstances, including former time as refugees, but we are expected to make something of ourselves and contribute to communities, and we want to do so.”
Because many populations are languishing, Sorn and her colleagues approach their mission minus insularity, offering services to any forlorn party. Funding cuts have hampered their progress, but for the mother of two boys, ages 18 and 12, persisting for the sake of the next generation counts as the central tenet of her professional and familial identity.
“We’re striving to engage all Cambodians in building civic pride,” Sorn said, noting the organization of cleanups and the registration of hundreds of voters for last year’s election as achievements. “For our young participants, we have ample programming, including, as a way to assimilate themselves to American culture even more, hip-hop dance classes, material they will incorporate into our new year celebration. Because we’re the only existing, active organization for Cambodians in the tri-state area, we constantly care about the present because we know its influence on the future.”
Sorn has developed such an affinity for helping families to flourish by reflecting on her own often arduous background. The Khmer Rouge, the moniker of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, ascended to power in 1975, establishing a reign rampant with forced labor, political executions and starvation. When Vietnamese forces invaded in ’79, incidentally the same year of her employer’s genesis, Sorn and her kin, including four siblings, soon found themselves bound for refugee camps, with four sites serving as their quarters for the next eight years, the last being Thailand’s Khao-I-Dang. During the confinement, Sorn, 11 at its onset, experienced interruptions to her education but enjoyed enough consistency to become a certified nurse five years into the period.
“Eventually we received an opportunity through a sponsor to come to the United States in ’87, and we lived on the third floor of a place not far from where I live now,” she said of her initial residence on the 1600 block of Mifflin Street. “During time in the Philippines, I had picked up more English and understanding of American culture, so I felt somewhat prepared for this new existence.”
Her clan relocated to the 1900 block of Morris Street and without knowledge of public transportation, she set out on foot each day from her abode to a clothing job on the 2700 block of South Street.
“After a few weeks, I thought ‘This is not the life I want,’” Sorn said of coveting more education to bolster her prospects.
She entered South Philadelphia High School, 2101 S. Broad St., as a junior and also took language lessons at the Houston Center, 2029 S. Eighth St. Her confidence growing, she soon added an associate’s degree in liberal arts from Community College of Philadelphia and a medical interpretation position at Health Center No. 2, 1720 S. Broad St., to her résumé.
“All of these experiences were leading me toward CAGP, I realize, because they were exposing me to community growth,” she said.
She landed what she termed her “first real job” through Albert Einstein Medical Center, spending four years as an educational outreach specialist for Southeast Asian women. A spell as a realtor preceded her joining the Cambodian Association as a field coordinator, with interim executive director and director of program duties following.
“I fit in right away because I have always felt a great connection with the community, including its struggles and aspirations,” Sorn said. “I feel empowered through helping them to understand how to meet their responsibilities because in many ways, we teach people how to help themselves so they can help each other. That process is simultaneously challenging and rewarding.”
The aforementioned trouble areas are serving as the components of her organization’s five-year plan to bring to communities the sort of happiness that will be on display Saturday. Sorn, too, is hoping to evolve, with dreams of acquiring a doctorate and teaching at a university.
“The future looks busy, and that’s something I cherish,” she said.
Contact Staff Writer Joseph Myers at firstname.lastname@example.org or ext. 124.