To celebrate the unveiling of a new mural that honors Amherst’s Cambodian community, over 100 people gathered at the high school for a Friday night ceremony, blessing and traditional dancing.
Recently graduated senior Augusta Fricke spent nine months working on the mural for one class period per day as part of an independent study. She designed the mural with input from a community of Cambodians, as well as scholars and teachers with ties to the community.
“I grew up with a lot of Cambodian students in our classes,” Fricke said. “When I was doing all the research for what to put in, I read a lot about what it’s like to be Cambodian-American from a younger generation.”
Inspired to paint a mural, but not picky about what she painted, Fricke painted over an old, unfinished mural also meant to celebrate Cambodian culture in a central hallway in the school. The new mural, titled “The Splendor of Khmer Angkor,” is a tribute to the families that settled in Amherst in the 1980s.
“The mural depicts stone-carved monuments from Angkor, the capital city of the powerful Khmer Empire that ruled Southeast Asia from 802 to 1431 CE,” read a placard mounted on the wall beside the painting. “In the center is a tower from The Bayon, carved with faces of the great Buddhist King Jayavarman VII. It rests on a lotus-flower pedestal, a symbol of purity and enlightenment.”
On the sides, Apsara dancers are featured performing the classical dance of heavenly maidens, and monkey-headed guardians from the Banteay Srei temple stand guard. At 25 feet long, it will be the largest mural in the school.
Seiha Krouch, an English language learning teacher and paraprofessional at Crocker Farm Elementary School, was on the committee overseeing the mural. After fleeing Cambodia during the war, he moved to Amherst when he was a teenager with his mother and six siblings after losing his father and one sister to the violence.
“She brought us here, I didn’t know how to read or write,” Krouch said. He has now taught in the Amherst school system for 25 years, and served as a vital resource for the area’s Cambodian community. Under his guidance, Cambodian middle and elementary school students visited the school to help paint the mural too.
“It’s going to be amazing for those kids to come here and see their names on the wall and then have this as a sense of pride I would hope,” Fricke said.
Krouch stayed in a refugee camp in Thailand for years before his family’s application was accepted and they moved to the U.S. He attended school in Amherst, starting at Crocker Farm, and graduated from the high school in 1991.
To better serve students like Krouch, Amherst created a transitional bilingual education program, one of the first of its kind in the nation. Krouch was a product of this initiative, and now uses his education to serve other Cambodian students through his school’s Cambodian Affinity Group.
“As a teacher they were also using the language to teach about the culture and the history, what these kids had missed in the war years,” said Joan Snowdon, a recently retired teacher. “The bilingual people became really important in order to explain, and help the Amherst community understand what these communities had been through and what they needed.”
Before Massachusetts outlawed bilingual education in 2002, Amherst was one of the only schools in the state offering bilingual classes on Khmer language and culture. Different community groups formed to support Cambodian refugees, most of which have dissolved today.
“We want to revisit some of those programs again,” Krouch said.
Snowdon was working as a social worker and English language learning teacher in Amherst when Cambodian refugees began moving into the area. She got involved with resettlement efforts as seven area churches helped sponsor Cambodian families in the 1980s. As they settled, Amherst became a model for refugee resettlement and family reunification, Snowdon said.
“I see the mural as just a continuation of the school’s commitment to the Cambodian community,” Snowdon said.
Krouch says there are about 250 Cambodian families in western Massachusetts. According to Superintendent Michael Morris, there are 65 students of Cambodian descent in Amherst schools.
“I think ARHS, for western Massachusetts, is a very diverse high school,” said Jeff Stauder, the art teacher who oversaw Fricke’s mural. “I think it makes it a more interesting fun place to work, the kids, there can be a lot of noise outside the building, but inside the building, in general, these kids are great to each other.”
Two monks, one each from the Cambodian Buddhist temples in Leverett and Pelham, blessed the mural after its unveiling. After growing up in the Pioneer Valley, Krouch’s family, with the help of other Cambodian settlers, raised money to help build a Buddhist temple in Leverett.
Amherst High School Principal Mark Jackson said that, to him, the mural is not only a celebration of Cambodian culture in the Pioneer Valley, but also a tribute to Snowdon, who retired last year.
“With a large number of people arriving at the same time with a language that very few people spoke in Amherst, it created challenges for the town,” Snowdon said. “It’s a really big event in the history of Amherst.”
Jones Library in Amherst will soon begin documenting the history of Cambodian resettlement in Amherst in its Special Collections Archives. Elaine Kenseth of South Congregational Church was also honored at the ceremony for her work visiting a refugee camp in Thailand, helping complete paperwork, and making it possible for families to settle in Amherst.
“There was so much to learn from these families,” Snowdon said.