By Kamna Sashtri for Puget Sound Future-Makers
Sophorn Sim grew up catching fish, snails, and crabs in her backyard in Cambodia. There was no need to go to the market for seafood when a fresh catch was a stone’s throw away. When war broke out in the country, Sim saw the world change before her eyes. She and her family were forced to work in labor camps under the Khmer Rouge regime, where they were deprived of adequate food, water, and medical attention. Sim’s health deteriorated, and she developed a lung condition.
When she came to U.S. as a refugee, Sim said she recounted the luxury of safe, running tap water—and no lines or fighting over drinking water. There was one barrier though. Language. She was unable to read the labels on daily cleaning products, which worsened her health.
The weather in Washington was also different: cold and damp compared to Cambodia’s hot, tropical climate. Sim was used to open doors for cross ventilation. But in her new apartment, she found herself with closed doors, leading to moisture build up, and another intruder: mold. To clean the mold she used bleach, but the chemicals in the product exacerbated her lung problems.
Decades later, Sim is a Community Outreach Associate for ECOSS, a nonprofit that fosters environmentally equitable communities and businesses. With a team of people speaking over a dozen languages, ECOSS delivers environmental education, resources, and technical assistance in the areas of stormwater permit compliance, recycling and food waste, energy efficiency, Brownfields, Green Stormwater Infrastructure, and outreach to multicultural communities and businesses.
Sim is passionate about educating immigrant and refugee communities—including her own Cambodian community—about non-toxic, environmentally friendly ways to clean the home, garden, fish, and live.
“The reason why I am so passionate to be working in this field is because I want to be able to share my personal experience [and say] ‘look, because I don’t read and write the language and I do not know how, this is hazard for me,’” said Sim, pointing back to her early days in the U.S.
Veggies in the garden
In her community outreach work at ECOSS, Sim strives to provide immigrants and refugees with realistic, low-cost, green solutions to the home. Sim’s strategy is to “connect the dots”; to show community members the connections between the chemicals they use and their health and environmental impacts.
Sim recounts an incident where she worked with a woman who loved to garden. The woman’s husband would use weed killers on the grass. When they mowed the grass, they’d use lawn clippings for compost, which was then used to grow veggies in the garden. Eventually the family would eat the veggies, therefore ingesting the chemicals.
When Sim explained the entire process to the woman. “[The woman] went, ‘Oh my god! so all along I’ve been doing this!’” Sim said. “So, the reaction is eye-opening. Now they are connecting dots related to their health.”
Fish in the river
Similarly, Sim does the same kind of connecting work when it comes to educating the community about fishing along the banks of the Duwamish. It is a cultural practice to fish, and to use the day’s catch for food. When new refugees and immigrants—especially from Southeast Asia—arrive, the presence of the Duwamish is comforting and reminds them of home. Just like they would at home, they fish. Sim says that often they cannot read the signs, only in English, warning of toxic fish.
“You are not going to be able to see or tell the problem right away,” Sim said. “The message we are trying to send to our refugee and immigrant community is that the chemical has no smell, no color. You cannot see it with your eyes.”
It isn’t that new arrivals and those with a language barrier don’t want to be conscientious, Sim explained. It is often that they just don’t have the right information about chemicals, environmental practices and how this affects their health. Sim also points to the kind of trust that many recent immigrants and refugees put in the U.S. government and regulation policies.
“They believe in the system, that in America the government is taking care of people, because if the product is harmful they wouldn’t allow it in the market,” said Sim. She says they don’t realize that harmful products can still be sold if their ingredients are noted on a label.
When she meets community members at her living room sessions, or at gatherings, she explains how pesticides, weed killers, bleach and other kinds of chemicals leak into stormwater, travel to the river, the fish, and finally into the people who consume those fish (or veggies). She delivers the message in her community’s own language. And it makes a difference.
A common responsibility
Currently, Sim is training a group of eight community members from the Cambodian community to become Community Health Advocates, a program deployed by the Environmental Protection Agency. Public Health—Seattle & King County is managing the program by partnering with and training ECOSS staff, who then work with local communities. The goal of the program is to get the communities engaged in the cleanup of the Duwamish River Superfund [KS1] site. Sim conducts the workshops on Saturdays, in Khmer, to a group of eight participants, many of whom fish from the river and are familiar with preparing seafood for consumption.
During the workshop, Sim equips participants with detailed knowledge about the cleanup process, how that will affect fishing, and residents who live along the river. She tells them about the noxious chemicals that fill the river, and that PCBs and other chemicals collect in the fish. She tells them that consuming the residential seafood can lead to health effects for everyone, including young children and pregnant women and that if one has to fish, the best fish to consume would be salmon.
“Once they get trained they are going to become community health advocates and work with the community to reach out, raise awareness, and provide education among the community. These people get trained and they train the community,” Sim said.
Taking care of the environment is a shared responsibility, Sim believes. It’s not just for the rich, who might have time and resources on their hands. Anyone with the tools and knowledge can make an impact, as long as they bring awareness as they think through their actions.
Her hope for the future is resilience in both communities and the environment. She parallels the idea of “life going on” within individuals (she specifically motions to the hardships the Cambodian community has faced), to the longevity of natural processes. She brings in the example of a banana peel and the way a life cycle ensures that life is not linear, but a circular process:
“The banana peel goes to the compost and he compost goes to the plant again and life goes on,” says Sim. “I would like to see that more and more in every single person.”
This story is part of the series “Puget Sound Future-Makers,” a partnership with the Russell Family Foundation, Resource Media and The Seattle Globalist, which recognizes the work of diverse leaders in the Puget Sound region in shaping the strength and resilience of our future environment and communities.