Soben Pin wept as she tried to express her sorrow Friday over a fire that claimed the lives of five members of a Cambodian family and displaced dozens more in Massachusetts.
"They escaped from Cambodia, they came here to live the American dream," said Pin, who publishes a newspaper for Lowell's Cambodian community. "You escape from there and you die from a fire. How is that possible?"
In a city with the second-largest Cambodian-American population in the U.S., members of the immigrant community are rallying to help the surviving relatives of the family who lost three children and their parents, as well as more than 40 other Cambodians displaced by Thursday's pre-dawn fire in an apartment building.
Scores of volunteers have donated food, clothing, blankets and other household items to those now living in temporary housing and The Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association, a nonprofit that has been helping Cambodians in Lowell for three decades, has set up a fundraising campaign on the crowd-funding website gofundme.com.
"We have a close community," said Virak Uy, a board member of the CMAA. "Everybody kind of knows everybody."
“They escaped from Cambodia, they came here to live the American dream."Soben Pin, on the victims of the fire
Cambodians began coming to the U.S. in large numbers in the early 1980s, when the U.S. refugee program began accepting Cambodians from refugee camps in Thailand, where they went to escape the murderous Khmer Rouge regime. Cambodian activists say they were attracted to Lowell because of the availability of jobs in manual labor, as well as social services. Today, the city has dozens of Khmer restaurants, markets, variety stores and other small businesses.
The Cambodian population was listed at about 22,000 in the 2010 census, but many community activists put the number much higher — 35,000 to 40,000 — because many Cambodians are reluctant to fill out census forms.
"They worked hard, some started businesses, they helped each other, and pretty soon, they became a vibrant community before you knew it," said Pin, publisher of KhmerPostUSA, a Khmer-English biweekly newspaper.
The fire killed seven people. Authorities have not released their identities, but a relative identified five of the victims as members of a Cambodian family: Torn Sak, his longtime girlfriend, Ellen Vuong, and three of their five children: a 7-year-old girl, a 9-year-old boy and a 12-year-old boy.
Authorities have not yet determined the cause of the fire, but have said they are investigating whether the smoke alarms in the building were working and whether fireworks stored in Sak's apartment played any role.
The couple's two other children escaped, along with their grandfather.
"The grandfather definitely is devastated because of feelings of regrets of being helpless and not being able to save his family members," Uy said. "One of our goals is to provide some counseling to address those mental health issues of victims because they are going through a lot."
Paul-Ratha Yem, a Cambodian who moved to Lowell in 1989 and is now a local real estate agent running for state representative, said the community is hoping a memorial service Sunday at The Glory Buddhist Temple will help offer spiritual as well as worldly help.
"It's for the monks to bless the deceased's souls and also for the monks to heal the mental scars and wounds of the survivors," he said. "The third component is — we use it as a way to raise funds and donations for the families who lost everything."
"In this country, we have counseling, but for Cambodians, they turn to the temple and the service," he said.