Khmer Maine held its first dinner and awards ceremony as an official nonprofit on Aug. 30 at the Jewish Community Alliance of Southern Maine in Portland.

“When I heard there was a Khmer community and Khmer association here in Maine, I got excited because it’s important to me to connect to my roots and for my two kids to understand where they came from and connect with their culture,” said guest speaker Dr. Puthiery Va, the new director of Maine Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Va was born in a refugee camp as her parents left Cambodia (then called Khmer), was raised in upstate New York and has dedicated her career to public health. She told Khmer Maine volunteers and supporters, “The work that you do and the work that public health does – we know that not everyone has the same circumstances, and we build in safety nets.”

When the pandemic hit, a new organization, then called Cambodian Association of Maine, was fundraising for its second celebration of Cambodian New Year, which falls in April. With that canceled, founder Marpheen Chann called supporters to offer refunds, but most suggested that the money be redirected toward pandemic relief.

“To honor their trust, we pivoted and used those funds to supply essentials like masks and toilet paper,” Chann said. “The care packages also included diapers – which were donated by the Jewish Community Alliance of Southern Maine, where we’re celebrating tonight as a reminder of the generosity and shared experience we have with the Jewish community.”

Throughout the pandemic, the Cambodian association collaborated with Watt Samaki, a Buddhist temple in Buxton, and grew their relief efforts with funding from Maine Initiatives and Maine Community Foundation. Over time, the Cambodian association became a member organization of Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, opened an office at Maine Equality Center, was renamed Khmer Maine and, in June, officially became a nonprofit.


All these supporting organizations and more were represented at Khmer Maine’s three-course dinner catered by Sokly Soeuy and a team of “mings,” or “aunties.” Sokhoeun Sok of Westbrook, who taught traditional Cambodian dance to teens as part of a Khmer Maine program this year, performed a blessing dance. And a dozen local teens who completed a Food & Farm BIPOC Youth Leaders summer program presented awards.

Honorees included Cambodian business Golden Wat Cognac, partner organization Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, and former staff member Theary Leng Ryder. Two political figures received awards as Friends of the Cambodian Community: Secretary of State Shenna Bellows, who frequently attends Khmer Maine events to encourage voter registration, and Assistant Republican Leader Amy Arata, who sponsored a joint resolution this legislative session to mark the May 20 Cambodian National Day of Remembrance.

“In college, I became good friends with some Cambodians, and learning that millions of people were murdered by communists in Cambodia in the 1970s really moved me,” Arata said.

As a result of that time, thousands of people of Khmer descent live in Maine. Chann’s birth mother is a survivor of the regime. Having been raised primarily by his adoptive family, Chann had lost all knowledge of the Khmer language by the time he founded the Cambodian Association of Maine in 2018 to connect with his roots. But, as an activist involved in nonprofits and local government, Chann has brought something else – a sort of cultural exchange.

Khmer Maine has become well connected, collaborating with other culturally focused nonprofits and communities of color, including Presente! Maine, and attracting sponsors like Waypoint Intercultural, Good Shepherd Food Bank, Bernstein Shur and IntWork.

Meanwhile, Maine’s only Cambodian Buddhist temple, Watt Samaki, has purchased 30 acres in Westbrook to build a new temple, a cultural and community center, and a residence for the monks. Beyond ticket sales, the Khmer Maine dinner did no fundraising for itself, instead encouraging donations to the Watt Samaki building fund.

Amy Paradysz is a freelance writer and photographer based in Scarborough. She can be reached at

Comments are no longer available on this story

filed under: