Generosity and resilience: transnational activity among the Khmer of Norway.

Author:Overland, Gwynyth Jones


The article reports on the pilot phase of an ongoing study of successfully rehabilitated Khmer refugees. Some of the most striking recoveries in this heavily traumatized group have taken place among those who have focused on contributing to the rebuilding of Cambodia. The article explores this collective and individual transnational generosity both generally, as an aspect of survivor resilience, and specifically by following one process. Why do Khmer refugees want to build a school and what does it mean to them? How does their transnational generosity relate to the resilience of Khmer refugees? Their own explanations are founded in their religion.


Cet article est un compte rendu sur la phase pilote d'une etude en cours sur des refugies khmers rehabilites avec succes. Certains des retablissements les plus frappants dans ce groupe fortement traumatise sont survenus parmi ceux qui se sont evertues d'apporter leurs contributions a la reconstruction du Cambodge. Cet article explore cette generosite transnationale collective et individuelle tant sur le plan general, clans son aspect de l'endurance du survivant, que sur un plan plus specifique d'un processus donne. Pourquoi les refugies khmers veulent-ils construire une ecole et qu'est-ce que cela signifie pour eux ? De quelle facon leur generosite transnationale se rapporte-t-elle a l'endurance du refugie khmer ? Leurs propres explications trouvent leurs fondements dans leur religion.


The Khmer population in Norway numbers about three hundred persons--those who came as refugees from the camps along the Thai border, their children, and grandchildren. They were all settled in the same area in the late 1980s and almost all remain there. Khmer refugees are arguably the most traumatized refugees to have been resettled in Scandinavia, yet many have demonstrated a striking resilience. Marriages take place, children are born, and the parent generation, who balanced for a decade or so in the 1970s and 1980s on the edge of human experience, seem to have found a kind of peace. Second-generation Cambodians also display a striking buoyancy and creativity (see photo: flying boy). In this population there are many who have rehabilitated themselves: they appear to have rewon the ability to lead a normal life. How did this happen?

In the final analysis, the individual's resilience--the ability to "bounce back" or regain form after great strain--may make the difference between integration and disintegration for survivors. (1) Resilience is an extensive and growing field of study; a Web search for the term produced 332,000 hits, including a current definition: "ability to

adapt well to unexpected changes and events." (2) Research indicates various factors that may play a role in the resilience of refugee survivors who are successfully rehabilitated. A sense of coherence, work or meaningful activity, the continuity of cultural practices, religious beliefs, social network, family coherence, and "steeling" through earlier traumatic experience are some examples. (3) Survivors' perspectives on their own recoveries are more uncommon, however. What do they think has contributed most to their survival after experiences known to destroy lives?

The article reports on the pilot phase of an ongoing study of successfully rehabilitated refugee survivors of war, concentration camps, and human rights abuses, based on an analysis of their biographical narratives. In recent years the focus of research on survival has slowly shifted from "misery" to "mastering"--from the study of problems to the study of resilient behaviour, from risk factors to protective factors, and from therapy to efforts to strengthen competency. (4) The final aim of the study will be to develop hypotheses, grounded in the narratives, that may be of use for the substantive area of sociological inquiry constituted by patient care and psychosocial work with this vulnerable group. Mapping agents' methods for survival and triangulating their narratives, their interpretations, and social theory are hoped to contribute to new ways of working with refugees as clients and patients.

This is a qualitative study, dealing as it does with biographical memories, thoughts, and feelings. The methodological basis is dialogue and participant observation among a population of Cambodian refugees who have made a remarkable recovery against all odds and in spite of a heavy load of traumatic experiences. In particular, a dialogue has continued over a period often years between the researcher and a Khmer gatekeeper who has been leader both of the Cambodian Society and of the Khmer Buddhist Society in this period. Secondary sources include reports and letters from the Khmer societies and field notes. As a consequence of culturally founded explanations offered by the informants, theoretical perspectives from Buddhist philosophy / psychology are explored and viewed in the light of sociological constructivism.

The first factor emphasized by Khmer survivors in Norway as useful for them has been their contact with the home country, including the giving of charitable donations to worthy causes. "The plate goes round: Norwegians give 10 dollars; Cambodians give 100." (5) Resilience appeared to be correlated with this generosity.

The article therefore charts the forms and extent of generosity and other altruistic behaviour among Khmer in Norway and follows one sample process: the building of a school in southeastern Cambodia. Why do Khmer refugees want to build a school and what does it mean for them? What forms of transnational generosity actually go on? How does their transnational generosity relate to the resilience of Khmer refugees?

Background: The Khmer Diaspora

In the Thai border camps...

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