Monday, 9 November 2009

Melody Ross's death causes Cambodian parents' wariness and fears to grow

Wilson High School student Melody Ross,16, who was shot and killed Friday October 30, 2009, after a Wilson High School football game, at Wilson. Family Photo

By Greg Mellen Staff Writer

(Posted by CAAI News Media)

LONG BEACH - The shooting death of Melody Ross, a 16-year-old Cambodian American bystander killed after a high school football game, has reawakened old fears and concerns among a number of Cambodian parents in the community about the safety of their children.

The tragedy also has at least some reconsidering the involvement of their children in extracurricular activities.

It also has a Cambodian sociologist telling the community that retreat is the worst outcome for Khmer kids, who need to be active and involved in their schools and culture if they are to flourish.

While the death of Ross is a concern for parents of all races, it is particularly acute among parents in the Cambodian community, where the ghosts of the Killing Fields genocide and the culture of fear are never far beneath the surface.

Ross, the daughter of survivors, was not involved in the dispute that erupted in the fatal shooting after Wilson's homecoming game against Poly on Oct. 30. She was simply in a crowd and hit at random. Police say she was not a target and that race was not a factor.

That is little solace to survivors of the genocide that left upwards of 2 million dead between 1975 and 1979.

Since Ross' death, several Cambodian parents have said they are debating whether to let their children participate in after-school activities.

Dr. Leakhena Nou, a sociology professor at Cal State Long Beach, says for genocide survivors in particular the feelings are amplified.

"Any random act of violence can be a trigger for survivors who have lived through such terrible circumstances," Nou said. "This is definitely a step backward for psychological and emotional healing."

Traditional culture

Compounding the difficulty are aspects of Cambodian culture and identity.

Ross, for example, came from a traditional family that clung to the idea of "chabap srey" or the Cambodian code of behavior for girls.

Khmer parents typically are very protective of their girls and restrict their interactions outside of the family with friends and social groups.

The football game was the first Ross had been allowed to attend and she had to lobby her parents hard to gain permission to go.

The Cambodian Coordinating Council, in a statement to the Board of Education, expressed the feelings of many.

"As you know, many of the Cambodians in this community fled during the Killing Fields to other countries for peace and freedom. When this tragic incident happens in our city, it brings horrible memories for those who are survivors," the letter said.

The news shook John and Candy Vong. Their son, Petra, sings for Lakewood High's madrigals and the parents were debating whether to let him attend the next game.

"I'm afraid to let him go," Candy said. "We haven't made a decision, but right now it's about 98 percent we won't let him go. He's our only son."

Candy says John lost much of his family in Cambodia and was nearly killed himself.

A father's fears

Just hours before Friday's football game, Bryant Ben, a survivor whose 13-year-old son, Patrick, attends Poly, had a discussion with his son.

The boy wanted to exercise his freedom and ride the bus to the game after school.

Bryant said, "No," and they went through the motions of a typical father-son argument: the child wanting freedom and independence, the parent arguing for safety.

"He said, `You're overreacting,"' Bryant recalls, "I said `You can say that."'

Dr. Christina Lee is a survivor with two younger children who understands the fear of her compatriots.

For many Cambodians, survival during the Khmer Rouge reign depended on being invisible and going unnoticed. So it is difficult to expose their children to perceived hazards.

Lee said survivors who lost family members tend to be cautious and when they lose a child for no apparent reason it is like a double blow.

She said Ross' death will probably deter parents from letting children attend events, and she admits she'd "think twice" about letting her children go.

Nou says as difficult as it may be for parents to let go, it is a vital part of the children's acculturation, their identity and their self-esteem.

Being involved in school activities, Nou says, is integral to "adolescent identity building.

"Attending a football game is a natural part of growing up," she said.

And as tempting as it may be to want to shield kids, Nou says Khmer children need to experience the full range of the high school if they are to learn, grow, adapt and succeed, which ultimately is their parents' wish.

About the services

What: Funeral services for Melody Ross

When: Saturday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Where: Sky Rose Chapel at Rose Hills Memorial Park, 3888 S. Workman Mill Road, Whittier. The chapel is in the East Park area. The entrance is through Gate 1. The burial will follow. The event is open to the public.

Donations: The Long Beach Education Foundation has set up a fund for the Ross family to pay for the funeral and related costs and possibly as a college scholarship fund for Ross' two sisters, Emily, 17, and Kimberly, 6.

Donations can be made by check to the Long Beach Education Foundation with Melody Ross Memorial Trust Account noted on the memo line. Checks should be mailed to the Long Beach Education Foundation, 1515 Hughes Way, Long Beach, CA 90810.

The Cambodian Coordinating Council and other civic groups are also organizing fundraisers and events to help the family.

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