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Q&A: ‘Our Folks Are Scared’ — Center Gives Refugees, Immigrants Therapy for Racism and Other Trauma

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Laura Som, who came to the U.S. as a refugee of the Cambodian genocide, says she grew up watching her elders struggle with the “aftermath of wars, extreme violence and neglect.” (Screenshot captured by Julia Métraux / The CC Pulse file)

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Interview, Malcolm Marshall

Founded in 2006, the Oakland-based Center for Empowering Refugees and Immigrants works to improve the social, emotional, psychological, economic and physical health of refugees and immigrants, many of whom have been affected by war, torture, genocide or other extreme traumas. According to its website, CERI engages with over 1,200 refugees and immigrants annually, including Cambodian, Vietnamese, Burmese, Afghan, Tibetan, Nepali, Indian, Rwandan, Filipinx, Iranian and Latinx people.

The CC Pulse spoke with Clinical Director Kate Wadsworth about the work the group does to support victims of hate crimes and hate incidents and the services it offers for those affected. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

The CC Pulse: What kind of services do you offer for victims of hate crimes and incidents?

Kate Wadsworth: Connecting them to public benefits, legal services, any services they need. It can be housing, school support; it could be all sorts of different things because, oftentimes, people get overwhelmed after experiencing the trauma of being a victim of a crime.

We also provide trauma-informed care therapy. We provide individual therapy; we provide wellness groups that are culturally tailored, so oftentimes, they’re in the [person’s native] language. Right now, I think, we have a Nepali group for folks that speak Nepalese. Cambodia, Burmese and Vietnamese are some of the other groups that we offer right now.

Prevention services like educating folks on hate crimes and educating folks on bystander trainings and upstander trainings and what to do if they’re a victim of a hate crime.

But the main focus of our program is therapy. We’re able to provide therapeutic services in the language either through an interpreter or through someone who speaks the language, that are trained in different modalities like EMDR, which is an evidence-based practice and internal family systems, which is another modality, and then just trauma-informed care.

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RP: In terms of hate, what kinds of issues are people coming to you with?

KW: A wide variety of physical harm: being attacked — we’ve had some clients that get spit on, had their hair pulled — physical attacks, some very intense issues of violence. A few of our clients have ended up in the emergency room. We also have a lot of hate such as slurs, like, ‘Go back to your country’ and all the COVID crap, like, ‘It came from China,’ and then everyone who’s Asian is Chinese.

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Also, a lot of bullying at schools. A lot of folks that were bullied at a young age and then turned to aggression. They’re in their early teens to young adults, and they’re now seeking services for, like, long-term slurs and hate and bullying that happened. We see kids and we see adults.

RP: Some might say that bullying is just kids being kids, but do you see bullying bleeding into the larger issue of hate?

KW: Absolutely. I think folks that we’re seeing for bullying is very much based on ethnicity. Things like, ‘Go back to your country,’ ‘You spread the virus,’ ‘You don’t belong in this country.’

RP: Are you doing any sort of outreach to encourage people to report hate crimes and incidents?

KW: We do a lot of outreach with our community members. We have a pretty intensive outreach team because we have many programs. We go to a lot of cultural affairs. We go to a lot of temples. During the fall, there are a lot of different Southeast Asian ancestral holidays. We go to a lot of those [celebrations]. We provide information about our programs and about what does hate mean. We have a whole curriculum around that, and we table at different events. We put the word out at schools and in the community at large at these different cultural events because that’s the populations we’re working with.

RP: Long before Stop Asian Hate or Stop the Hate was a thing, we had some high-profile incidents of Asian elders getting attacked, by young Black men in some instances. The lines were blurry between hate crimes and what I’ll call crimes of opportunity. I say all that to say, I’m wondering what you’ve been hearing from refugees and immigrants about safety, in general.

KW: I think that’s a big thing, especially for our elders, because there’s been so much for many years. But even since COVID, that really sort of started things even more, maybe even more intensely. Our elders have been scared to walk the streets for a long time. I’m not [saying] that’s not a new thing, but it is maybe more intensified.

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Also, I could spend a lot of time talking about this, but given the trauma of being a genocide survivor, on a day-to-day [basis], anything that kind of reminds them of ‘I’m in danger,’ understandably, just gets really scary. So many of our elders are very scared to go to Chinatown and those areas because they feel like — I think, rightly so — that they’re going to be targeted there. And so we’ve done a lot, trying walking groups and support groups. We’re doing a pilot program with Asian Health Services. They do the medical care, and we do the mental health care, trying to get folks from our Cambodian communities to be able to go out and do more things because I hear a lot from elders, ‘I don’t want to go outside because I’m worried I’m going to get hurt, I’m going to get targeted, or I’m going to get robbed.’ I think that’s the big one.

So we’re trying to really break that down by having like buddy systems and supporting folks getting out. It’s really sad to see because our folks are scared.

RP: Are you doing any work aimed at preventing hate crimes and incidents? If so, what? If not, what do you think should be done? 

KW: We are trying to support our communities in finding safe ways. This isn’t really prevention, because it’s more of looking at what can we do right now for our elders, so they can get out and do things, activities out in the community, they can all do together.

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We also do a lot around kind of what you were talking about before. But we’re doing it from the perspective of our folks to address the racial tension — it’s much larger, much more than tension — but between the Black community and the Asian community. We are trying to do a lot of education for our folks about understanding what African Americans have gone through in this country, because I think there is a lot of -isms going both ways. We’re trying to do education for our folks on understanding so that maybe there can be some healing around that for them. A lot of our folks didn’t even know where America was. I mean, I’m talking about our elderly, Cambodian, let’s say, they didn’t even know the country. So they didn’t understand anything, but they sort of get here and were put in low-income neighborhoods. And we know what our country does to people of color.

Any victim of or witness to a hate incident or crime in California can report it and receive support any time at You can also call 833-8-NO-HATE; (833) 866-4283 Monday – Friday from 9:00 am – 6:00 pm. If outside of those hours, you can leave a voicemail, or you can call 211 to report hate and seek support. You can currently submit reports online in 15 languages and, when calling the hotline, you can get access to support in over 200 languages. If you want to report a hate crime to law enforcement immediately or you are in present danger, please call 911.

This resource is supported in whole or in part by funding provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library in partnership with the California Department of Social Services and the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs as part of the Stop the Hate program. To report a hate incident or hate crime and get support, go to CA vs Hate.

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