Lowell: City of Refugees, Community of Citizens


Patricia Fontaine

Graduate School of Education

Clinical Associate Professor, Curriculum and Instruction

Phone: 978-934-4622

Fax: 978-934-3002

Office: O’Leary 525


John Wren

Technology Support Specialist

Phone: 978-934-4653

Office: O'Leart 510



Lowell: A city of refugees, a community of citizens


Lowell is a diverse city where different ethnicities have left their imprint on its past and present history.  The influx of Cambodians to Lowell in the 1980s is especially significant because the reason they came was a new one. Rather than come to work in the mills, as had the previous generations of immigrants, they came as refugees forced to leave their homeland during the genocidal reign of Pol Pot from 1975-1979. Also significant is the number of Cambodians in Lowell, accounting for the second largest Cambodian population in the United States after Long Beach, California.

It is significant to tell the Cambodian story in Lowell as Lowell has always been a story of immigrants: however, in the last 30 years it has also become the story of refugees.  Even though cultural manifestations like the Angkor Dance troupe have given a face to Cambodian culture, the Lowell story still remains today the story of immigration and industrialization.  A current move by the Lowell National Park and the Tsongas Industrial History Center to look at Lowell through a contemporary lens is the perfect opportunity to tell the story of an estimated 20% of Lowell’s population.

Pat Fontaine, Clinical Associate Professor at the Graduate School of Education, received a University of Massachusetts  President’s Creative Economy grant to tell some of the many stories of Lowell’s Cambodians.   It is  appropriate for UMass Lowell to be involved in telling the stories of the Cambodians who gravitated to Lowell, because the University is an educational institution- which, for the Khmer Rouge, represented all that was evil in that society.  They viewed such institutions as bastions of intelligence and intellectualism that needed to be, and were, destroyed.

Some of the activities that will be supported by this grant are:

•              1. A multi-media history exhibit highlighting the richness of Cambodian history and culture.  It will also document the lives of 4 Cambodians living in Lowell today. Their journey from Cambodia before the arrival of the Khmer Rouge, during Pol Pot’s genocidal reign, finding sanctuary in refugee camps and finally arriving in Lowell will be told through oral testimonies and an interactive map.

•              2. The digitization of numerous and varied Cambodian resources (oral histories, pictures, paintings, primary and secondary resources); and, finally

•              3.  The creation of a healing garden as a visitor’s portal to Cambodia Town.

Multimedia history exhibit:

This multi-media history exhibit will consist of 3 parts.  The entry point of the exhibit’s first portion will be titled, The Cambodian Journey. This journey will begin as a historical retrospective of the richness and uniqueness of Cambodian past and culture.  It will then document the journey of 4 Cambodians presently living in Lowell from the killing fields of Cambodia to their arrival in Lowell as refugees.  Oral histories of these 4 Cambodians will be conducted and recorded by UMass Lowell history students adding to existing collected histories.

This stand alone exhibit will interface with a searchable, interactive database of maps, satellite images, and detailed information on 130,000 locations across Cambodia.  Using a program called CGEO, an interactive geographic data base, this collection of visuals shows the locations and names of 13,042 Cambodian villages, locations of 158 prisons run by the Khmer Rouge from April 1975 to January 1979 and mass grave sites. Pin marks will show where the interviewees lived, the camps where they were displaced, and the escape routes chosen to find safe haven in refugee camps where they were processed before coming to America.

The second display will be titled, Cambodians as Refugees, and will showcase collections of art work created by refugee children as they arrived in Lowell in the 1980s.  At the time, a Lowell teacher asked young refugees to illustrate and share their storied lives through art.  These art projects, previously shown in Lowell, have remained archived, but will once again come to life when displayed.  

A final display, showcasing Lowell’s new refugees titled, Lowell: A City of Refugees will introduce museum-goers to the new refugees who have come to call Lowell home especially the Burmese and Iraqi. Some of these refugees will also be presented again through their art work; others by biographical profiles.  The purpose of the juxtaposition of Lowell’s “new” and “old” refugees is to discover patterns that connect all of them: issues of identity, culture shock and the loss of old relationships.

Creation of a resource website/Digitization

 UML libraries, using a computer program called Content Management System, allow a computer web master to publish, edit and modify content relatively easily.  CMS not only is a front-end user interface, but also permits the user to archive existing documents. There are numerous collections of Cambodian resources located in different spaces - the Center for Lowell History, the Tsongas Industrial History Center and the University of Massachusetts Lowell libraries. To attract outside researchers, it would be beneficial to have a single depository for all resources that center around the Cambodian story. 

Creation of a healing garden in Cambodia Town

In April of 2012 the City of Lowell dedicated Cambodia Town, an area of Lowell located in the Lower Highlands, where the majority of the Khmer population resides. This dedication recognized the importance of this area to Cambodians who live there, but also to the city. City officials hope to “elevate” visibility of the uniqueness of this neighborhood that will in turn increase tourism and provide revenue for the many businesses and restaurants located within this area. 

The idea of a healing garden will be dedicated to those who have died, but also to those who are victims of trauma and war.  This garden is to be placed in Cambodia Town. It is expected to be a garden of reflection and remembrance that will attract Cambodians from other parts of the Commonwealth as well as other victims of the legacies of war especially Laotians and Vietnamese.  This garden can be seen as a tool to build communication among the varied Asian groups who reside in Lowell and beyond, groups whose violent histories overlap and are connected.

To quote Dr. Sengly Kong, head of the  Cambodia Town Association, the proposed healing garden will naturally serve another purpose- economic- where “more foot traffic in the area will help the local economy, create more local jobs, expand the tax base...” 

Subject Guide