The past 41 years for the Cambodian community have been a story of struggle and survival.
The communist takeover of Cambodia marked nearly four years of intense labor and a longing for refuge. In 1975, the first wave of Cambodian refugees settled in Utah and they would become part of the largest refugee resettlement in the U.S. In 1991, community leaders purchased a home in West Valley City and transformed it into Wat Buddhikaram. For the last 25 years, the unassuming neighborhood has come alive during New Year celebrations and other Cambodian holidays with the sounds of beating drums and chanting congregants. “The temple is very important,” Thea Yan says. “It’s a place for new generations to understand the Buddhist religion and for our Cambodian community to get closer in building relationships.” Wat Buddhikaram is the result of the efforts put forth by a community wanting to hold onto a culture they never let go — even as they left Cambodia. They converted the once-standing garage into a sala chan, a multipurpose room used for religious and cultural activities, which the few hundred members eventually outgrew.
When the time came to build a new facility, they worked tirelessly to cook and sell traditional food at large festivals and asked members for their support through financial contributions. They raised $700,000 to fund the construction of the temple.“We built a new temple because of the growing needs of the community,” Ray Hour says, who serves on the board of directors. “It was the right time for our generation because we have more time now to volunteer.” For Hour, religion and culture are inseparable and the temple serves as a unifying front. “If you have religion, you have culture. They go together side-by-side,” he says. The temple is also a practice space for the Khemera Dance Troupe. Young Cambodian Americans attend Sunday classes to learn the intricacies of Cambodian classical and folk dances.
“I joined the dance troupe to learn more about my culture and to be around people who are dedicated to preserving a beautiful art form,”
Emily Seang says. Within a community that knows the struggles of displacement, Wat Buddhikaram is home to those who are allowed to practice their cultural and religious beliefs without systemic resistance. It’s a place that celebrates being Cambodian in Utah. “I love that the temple is expanding to the community,” Seang says. “It really displays our culture and beliefs to people in Utah and others that visit from elsewhere.”
– By Jenny Hor