SANTA ANA, Calif. – In the secluded courtyard of a weathered condominium complex, at the dead end of a graffiti-marred Santa Ana street, the Cham are busy preparing a feast.
Banana trees grow tall in Santa Ana, shadowing crowded stalks of lemon grass and green onion. Severed bits of a cow slaughtered in conformity with Islamic law fill bright blue plastic tubs. Nearby, women sit cross-legged, chatting and laughing; their strong hands grind fresh ginger in stone mortars.
Centuries ago, the Cham ruled over their own kingdom, known as Champa, along the coastline of what is now Vietnam. They were maritime traders whose first religion was a form of Hinduism, but they later adopted Islam. Today they are a people without a homeland, their numbers a few hundred thousand. For centuries, they have been chased from place to place – from the highlands of Vietnam to the rivers of Cambodia and, in the aftermath of genocide, to the United States, where thousands have settled.
In the margins of each place, they have come together.
So it is in Santa Ana, where a hundred Cham families live in this worn Santa Ana complex alongside Hispanics, Laotians, and Cambodians. In the middle of one of the city’s most crime- infested neighborhoods, they have turned one apartment into a mosque and built a world centered on faith. In celebration, neighbors prepare feasts and share stories. In hardship, they share burdens, the cost of food, and the cost of burial.
As they have struggled to keep their community intact, the world has crept in. Some youths have turned to gangs and drugs. Others have packed their bags and fled. A few have drifted from the religion and language that shaped their youth. When the call to prayer goes out, the mosque is filled mostly with elders and small children, as if those in the middle disappeared.
On the day of the feast to celebrate the beginning of Ramadan and the end of the Islamic school year, one man finds himself wanting to rebuild his ties.
Nasia Ahmanth doesn’t properly speak Cham, which is related to Malay. He rarely attends mosque and can’t read the Arabic of the Koran. He rarely prays.
He was a baby when his father, El Ahmanth, led a village of Cham refugees in Santa Ana. But as the group put down roots, Nasia drifted, lured by the streets. By the time he was 17, he says, he was an addict, and speed was his drug of choice. As it raced through his body, he felt unstoppable, light, and creative at once.
He’s 30 and, he says, sober. He has a son and two years ago moved out of the neighborhood to distance himself from drug-using friends. Last year, though, when his father died, he found himself looking homeward, wanting to rebuild his ties to a community he feared was fading.
“I want my son to know what Cham is,” he said.
Nasia had just been born when in 1979 his family fled the Khmer Rouge’s brutal reign in Cambodia. They went to Thailand, then to refugee camps in the Philippines before landing in Southern California.
With a few hundred dollars in refugee assistance, his father rented an apartment in a neighborhood ravaged by shootings and drugs. He sponsored 10 families living in refugee camps in Thailand who had fled Cambodia, and before long those families were sponsoring refugees.
“You need to learn to walk before you can run,” Nasia’s father tells his three young boys.