By Robert Mills
LOWELL -- They are the handwritten stories of children written shortly after they arrived in Lowell, refugees from the Killing Fields, where one child wrote of being 5 when his sister was tied up by the Khmer Rouge in the woods to die just because she snuck out of her house.
The sister's life was spared by a member of the Khmer Rouge who changed his cohorts' minds about killing her.
They are children's stories about more ordinary life in Cambodia -- doing chores, and how people would brush their teeth while living in rural villages.
They are the stories of refugees in Lowell -- children who fled in the 1980s from the genocide committed by the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot.
In another room nearby are the stories of other refugees who made their way to Lowell from Burma, Iraq and other countries, some as recently as this year.
The stories, along with artwork, are part of a display called "Lowell: A City of Refugees, a Community of Citizens," at the Western Avenue Studios, 122 Western Ave., as part of a collaboration between UMass Lowell and associate professor Pat Fontaine, the Lowell Public Schools, The Cambodia Project and other groups.
The first exhibit focuses on the Cambodian refugees who changed Lowell when they arrived in the 1980s. The exhibit is dedicated to the late Dorothea Tsapatsaris, a teacher who worked with many of the children when they arrived and who saved much of their work.
Fontaine said there are more than 300 such photos and stories that have been collected. Once the exhibit is over, she hopes to find them a permanent home.
"They tell the story of the history of Cambodia," Fontaine said. "They tell the story of the culture, the rise of the Khmer Rouge and the Killing Fields under Pol Pot, and their transitioning into settlement camps on the Thai border, and then their arrival in Lowell.
There is even an interactive map to view the locations where the storytellers were born and where they fled to refugee camps before coming to America.
The second exhibit focuses on refugee communities that have come to Lowell more recently.
"We know in the last two years, over 400 refugee children came into Lowell," Fontaine said. "We wanted to tell their stories through text and words and the artwork of the students."
Former Gov. Michael Dukakis, who helped ease rules allowing refugees to come to Massachusetts, and his wife, Kitty, both attended the opening because Kitty Dukakis traveled to the refugee camps in 1985 and personally helped many Cambodians immigrate here.
Michael Dukakis' family came here from Turkey.
Kitty Dukakis' family came here from Ukraine, and Dukakis mentioned that even UMass Lowell Chancellor Meehan comes from an immigrant Irish family.
"The Irish were refugees from a terrible political and human situation," Michael Dukakis said.
The exhibit shows the history of not only Cambodian refugees in Lowell, but also of other refugee groups, as well as the city's own history as it evolved into the diverse and welcoming home of many different groups.
Former Lowell Superintendent of Schools George Tsapatsaris, Dorothea's husband, spoke of the challenges the city faced when the Cambodians arrived, and of how the community has grown since.
"We slowly began to see the light at the end of the tunnel, and today the Cambodian population is an integral part of our community and our schools," Tsapatsaris said.
Former City Manager James Campbell, who served Lowell for 12 years, most during the 1980s as the Cambodian immigrants were arriving, recounted the "logistical nightmare" and challenges as about 25,000 refugees, few of whom spoke English, arrived in Lowell.
The school system struggled at first, but new schools were built and bilingual programs were put in place to help the new residents.
But then the Cambodians began to share their culture. They brought the Southeast Asian Water Festival to Lowell and began to integrate into the community, according to Campbell.
Today, Campbell said, there are about 350 Asian-owned businesses in Lowell, providing thousands of jobs to people of all races and backgrounds.
The Cambodian community has also played a role in helping to revitalize blighted neighborhoods like the Acre.
"We really have benefited from this," Campbell said. "They came here to escape miserable conditions in their homeland, but now they have written their own chapter."
"Our community is now helping other immigrants become acclimated," said Bopha Malone, chairwoman of the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Agency.
Rodney Elliott spoke as Lowell's mayor, a position he has held for just about three months, though he has been a city councilor for 17 years. He said those years have taught him that this is "truly a city of immigrants."
The works will be on display in two exhibits every other Sunday through June 22, with events scheduled to add to the artworks and stories.