George Chigas, a visiting professor specializing in Cambodian culture, has recently been named lecturer in the Cultural Studies Department. During the Khmer Rouge, a regime led by Pol Pot, an estimated 2 million Cambodians were executed or starved to death. Many survivors fled to Lowell, resulting in the second-highest population of Cambodians after Long Beach, Calif. We asked him about his background and hopes for the future.
Q. How did you become interested in Cambodian culture?
In the late 1980s, I became involved with the Cambodian refugee community arriving in Lowell. At this time, I met my wife, Thida Loeung, and began learning Khmer. After a couple of years working at Lowell’s International Institute helping with refugee resettlement, we left to work in a refugee processing center in the Philippines, and also spent time in refugee camps along the Thai/Cambodian border. When we returned, I enrolled in the master's program in Asian Studies at Cornell, and later, in the doctoral program at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London.
In the 1990s, I was associate director of the Cambodian Genocide Program at Yale University, where I helped collect evidentiary materials against Khmer Rouge leaders currently on trial in Cambodia. Last year, I participated in a project with the Cambodian Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports to introduce the first textbook on the Khmer Rouge to be used in the national curriculum. I’ve taught an online course on the Cambodian genocide for Cornell since 2002, and have served as visiting professor here at UMass Lowell.
Q. Why did so many refugees choose to relocate to Lowell?
The one-word answer is "jobs." Of course, there's more to it, such as the Cambodian community reaching a critical mass that included groceries, a Buddhist temple, cultural organizations and human services, all of which added up to a web of meaning in which survivors of genocide could begin to make sense of the past and redefine personal and group identities ߝ the complicated process of healing that survivors pursue throughout their lives.
Q. What do you hope to accomplish in your new position?
I want to help the Department of Cultural Studies develop a degree program in Cambodian and Southeast Asian Studies that will attract students and professionals who plan to conduct research or work in any of the hundreds of humanitarian and development organizations in Cambodia. These organizations need people who are proficient in the Khmer language and culture. I also plan to develop a resource center to gather information related to Cambodia’s development to allow organizations to assess needs, best practices and progress toward development goals.