LOWELL -- Despite the Southeast Asian community's history in Greater Lowell dating back decades, it's a vivid history that some say lacks attention.
The hope is to change that with the creation of a new digital archive -- launched at UMass Lowell on Dec. 4 -- that documents the history, culture and experiences of people of Southeast Asian origin living throughout the area.
Sue Kim, English professor and associate dean of UMass Lowell's College of Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, and Phitsamay Uy, associate professor of leadership in schooling in the university's College of Education, serve as co-directors of the Southeast Asian Digital Archive (SEADA).
"This has been a labor of love," an emotional Uy told a crowd gathered at O'Leary Library for the launch.
More than 1 million Southeast Asian refugees have come to the U.S. since 1975. A commonly known fact among the Lowell community is the Cambodian migration -- which peaked in the Mill City in the 80s -- resulted in Lowell becoming home to the second-largest population of Cambodian-Americans in the nation. The city also has significant Vietnamese, Thai and Laotian communities.
It's a personal topic for Uy, who was relocated from Laos in 1979, and lived in a Thailand refugee camp for two years before coming to Lowell at age 6.
"Our community has been here for 40 years and in those 40 years, our stories have not been documented," she said, holding back tears. "And so, for me, this is an actualization of our community stories.
It's a collection of our collective history of being refugees from the killing fields, refugees from the secret war in Laos, and refugees from the Vietnam War."
The archive offers works by photographer Jamie Higgins, who documented the Southeast Asian-American experience in Lowell in a series of photo books from 1983 to 1997. The books, which are out of print, are available on the new digital platform. The archive also includes materials from Lowell's Angkor Dance Troupe and Burmese community.
The archive allows users to view documents and oral histories from the Indochinese Refugee Foundation, a Lowell-based organization active from 1977 to 1985 that assisted Southeast Asian immigrants settle in the region in the wake of the Vietnam War and to escape Cambodia's Khmer Rouge regime.
The IRF was founded by Hai and Lan Pho, former UMass Lowell faculty, and current UMass Lowell Chancellor Jacquie Moloney. Moloney, who served as the IRF's executive director before joining UMass Lowell, spoke to the crowd Tuesday night.
Moloney said the SEADA "will help us repeat the incredible story that happened in this city and how this Southeast Asian community transformed" it. The archive will also be a tool "all of our children will be able to come here and access forever."
"It was 30 years ago," Moloney said. "So this is an incredible circle for me in my life to be here, to stand with you, to celebrate this archive.
Moloney recalled a time when the Mill City was overwhelmed with the influx of refugees. The community ultimately accommodated the demand.
"That experience, for me, and how this city responded cemented my love for this city forever," Moloney said. "And that's what changed me forever, because I saw that communities do make a difference, people do make a difference."
SEADA was supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. It was created through a partnership between the Center for Asian American Studies, UMass Lowell Libraries and Lowell's Southeast Asian-American communities.
"Our goals are simple," Kim said. "To provide a secure, long lasting accessible resource for community members, researchers, students, teachers and others."
"This project has been in development for awhile, but today we come together to celebrate how far SEADA has come and how far we can go," she added.
To access the Southeast Asian Digital Archive, visit uml.edu/seada