Translating environment and health for Seattle’s immigrants and refugees

Sophorn Sim stands in front of her first apartment in Seattle, which remains largely unchanged. Sim, who was a refugee from the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, educates immigrants and non-English speakers about environmental issues. (Photo by Ross Coyle.)

Sometimes Sophorn Sim’s day involves a presentation in someone’s living room on habits such as opening windows and doors for ventilation. Other times she’s organizing field trips to stormwater retention ponds to teach other immigrants about pollution.

Sim has been leading the Environmental Coalition of South Seattle (ECOSS) educational programs targeted at non-English speakers to help them understand healthy environmental habits for almost 10 years.

Sim’s drive to help also stems from a desire for improving environmental equity in South Seattle and other parts of the south end.

The South Park alley where Sophorn Sim lived when she first arrived in Seattle is largely unchanged from the 1980s — a collection of ramshackle buildings with a dirt parking lot that flood when the rain is too heavy.

She believes that compounding a number of small factors leads to a better environment for everyone.

“It’s important to every community to have a healthy place to live,” she said.

Sim, a Cambodian refugee from the Khmer Rogue’s regime, says that it’s her mission to help other refugees get the help and access to education and services so they don’t have to learn the hard way about the potential dangers of chemicals and pollution — as she did.

She and her family, unfamiliar with the safety hazards of bleach, used it so often and in such high concentrations that it irritated a longstanding lung condition and she began coughing up blood. The experience galvanized her later in life to work with immigrant groups and educate them about healthy living practices when they arrive in the United States.

For instance, one of her most recent projects involved educating new immigrants on healthy fishing in the Duwamish, explaining which fish were OK to eat and which carried toxic concentrations of metals and other chemicals from the river.

She said for some refugees, the instinct to do what you can to survive continues here, leaving health and environmental concerns on the back-burner.

“Living under the communists, people were so suppressed, attacked or killed for minor wrongdoings or not even making mistakes. Escaping from a wartorn area, living as a refugee, people just tried to drink water from all over,” Sim said. “They don’t care about what’s in the system because for their survival they just have to do that. The same thing in the refugee camp; there’s polluted areas and we drank water from wherever we could find it.”

She said some refugees compare their new life to their old situations, and don’t realize that environmental dangers still exist here.

“So when they come here they think ‘wow, they see that everything is awesome, wonderful. Everything is being taken care of.’ They tend to forget that it’s important to keep the area clean. They don’t necessarily believe that their job is to help keep the area clean. They think it’s OK because they assume that the government is taking care of it.”

Immigrant communities face unique challenges because of language and cultural barriers in the United States. Sim has provided assistance, education and advocacy for more than 20 years, helping improve the lives of immigrants from the bottom up.

Dy Hang, who has known Sim for more than 20 years, says that Sim was one of the first to advocate for and educate others in the Khmer community on city resources.

“I can’t see her doing any better,” said Hang. “She doesn’t take any time to relax. She’s always trying to find new ways to help the community.”

Sim’s career has centered around helping marginalized communities in Seattle, though she didn’t plan for a job in the nonprofit sector. Sim escaped the horrors of the Khmer Rouge in the 1979. The survival mindset was so deeply ingrained she didn’t consider what she would do when she got to the US in the 1985.

“I never thought about my future,” she said.

She originally wanted to go into nursing, but the language barrier proved too difficult to overcome. Sim instead focused on getting office training at Seattle Central College.

While in school, she worked with the Refugee Service Center and then started working for Mutual Assistance Association helping a refugees from Cambodia, Bhutan, Ethiopia, Vietnam and more find social services, employment and support networks.

“I wanted to help wounded people, vulnerable people,” Sim said.

She worked as a refugee case manager, assisting new families in finding educations, jobs and financial help.

When Sim started at ECOSS, she recognized a need to help communities that fell through the cracks of government-provided environmental and hazard signs, which often don’t present information in languages spoken by refugee and immigrant communities.

“She’s kind of moved full circle,” said ECOSS communications associate Erica Sanford.

While finding native language speakers for the ECOSS programs is challenging, Sim says that it’s still possible to make a difference from actions alone.

Simply reaching out and educating new neighbors, or setting an example of healthy and sustainable living can make a big difference in behavior. Changing behaviors leads to a healthier, cleaner home, a cleaner neighborhood, and a better community.

“Just a little bit adds up to a lot of change,” she said.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly named the Environmental Coalition of South Seattle. This has been corrected.

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