Sunday, 2 March 2008

Festival stirs the melting pot

A member of the German-American Club of Cape Cod, Leonard Klein, shows off his lederhosen at the Multicultural Festival of Cape Cod yesterday at Cape Cod Community College.Cape Cod Times/Steve Heaslip

March 02, 2008

WEST BARNSTABLE — As hundreds visited the eighth annual Multicultural Festival of Cape Cod yesterday, one fact became clear: this event isn't so much about the food as hunger.

Musicians and dancers representing 16 ethnic groups transformed Cape Cod Community College's cafeteria and arts center into catacombs of culture yesterday. Along with the Tilden Arts Center being booked from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. with performers from all over the map, the International Cafe featured delicacies from Japan, Mexico, Southeast Asia, India, Europe and the Americas.

The different-colored faces sitting at the various booths offered crafts, sweets and the stories of their relatives' or their own migrations. A quick look beyond the Rastafarian album covers and Irish sweaters for sale, and you realized most of these groups or their descendents emigrated to the United States because of hunger and strife in their home country.

This became clear when speaking with Bopha Samms, who lost 14 of her 19 family members in two years during the brutal Pol Pot regime in Cambodia. Samms, 51, has owned Stir Crazy, a successful restaurant in Bourne, for 18 years.

In 1975, Samms had just finished high school when Pol Pot's Communist regime seized power in the Southeast Asian nation. On April 17, 1975, thousands of residents of her city, Phnom Penh, were driven out by the new leaders.

Soldiers just knocked on doors and told people to grab their belongings and leave, she said.

The April 17 Group, as they were called, was forced to roam a countryside filled with dead and rotting bodies, she said. For five years, her family wandered, unable to find a proper place to live or enough to eat. Samms, the fourth of 11 children, was sometimes so hungry she could not walk.

She said the temptation to eat anything, weeds, even something poisonous, could be overwhelming.

"You think, well, if I only eat a little, it won't kill me," Samms said.

Forced by the Pol Pot regime to grow crops, her family had to choose between starving or being beaten to death for stealing some of the vegetables, she said.

It was only after Samms' mother died that she and four siblings managed to escape to refugee camps in Thailand and the Philippines. She eventually emigrated to Providence, R.I., and got a job as a live-in nanny on the Cape in 1981.

Samms started her restaurant in 1989.

At her booth yesterday, Samms wore a gold Cambodian dress and her beautiful smile. She sat with her younger sister, younger brother and husband, who also escaped Pol Pot's holocaust.

The intentional starvation and torture of people by their own governments still goes on today, in Darfur, in Haiti, in other places around the world, she said.

"But even my own children don't think it's real," she said.

Samms' three offspring are 24, 22 and 14.

"Everything in this country — with Hollywood — it teaches you to think of yourself only. So we try to teach them to give, to share with others," Samms said of how she has raised her children.

"Because of the small part of the majority that still gives to charity, that's how we've been able to rebuild our lives in this country."

Helping one's neighbor was the theme of a service Thursday night sponsored by the Cape Cod Interfaith Coalition. Organized as part of the multicultural festival, the service was titled "What Do We Owe Our Neighbor?"

The evening included readings from the Quran, poetry by a Zen master and gospel music.

"What do we owe our neighbor?" asked Lawrence Brown, a Hindu, during the service. "To pay attention."


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