Cambodian Refugee Honored for Improving Access to Culturally Sensitive Health Services for Cambodian-American Community

Sonith Peou, program director, Metta Health Center, Lowell, Mass., is being honored for his efforts to ensure access to culturally sensitive health services for the large Cambodian-American community in Lowell.

As a high school student in Cambodia, Sonith Peou dreamed of becoming a medical doctor. But when the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia and destroyed all the schools, his dream was shattered.

In 1979, the Khmer Rouge was ousted, and Cambodia was in turmoil. So Peou fled to a refugee camp in Thailand. It was a two-day walk through dense forest to the border refugee camp. After a few months, Peou—then 27 years old—and his wife went to another refugee camp run by the United Nations. It was there that he was given an opportunity to deliver health care to those in need, despite a lack of formal training. “Since I escaped from Cambodia, I only wanted to help people,” Peou said. “I had always wanted to work in the health care field, and in the refugee camp, there was a lot of opportunity for someone who wanted to help in the hospital.”

His first child was born at the refugee camp and a short time later, he was able to come to the United States. Thanks to his local sponsor, a cousin, Peou found himself in North Dakota, biking through the snow without a coat to his new nighttime job at a bakery. During the day, he went to nursing assistant school in Minnesota. After school, he spent several hours with a tutor learning English. There was no time for sleep.

In 1985, Peou joined his wife’s family in Boston and soon found a community where he felt truly at home. Lowell, Mass., has the second-largest Cambodian population in the United States, after Long Beach, Calif. Unfortunately, because of cultural and language barriers, the health needs of Cambodian immigrants were not met, as many Cambodians were too fearful or unable to go to the local hospital.

“The local hospital looks like a government building to them. For Cambodians, we have a great fear of government because of what the Khmer Rouge did to people—killing and torturing your family members,” said Peou. Understanding this background, he knew what was needed to help the Cambodian community.

Peou helped to establish the Metta Health Center, an initiative of the Lowell Community Health Center, and he designed the facility to look like a clinic in Cambodia. He staffed it with native speakers and incorporated the Eastern medicine that is more traditional in Asian countries. Today, the Metta Health Center provides culturally competent health care services to thousands of Cambodians, Laotians and Vietnamese. Like other community clinics, the center focuses on preventive care and eliminates needless emergency room visits.

To reach the community, Peou had to be inventive. Because the Khmer Rouge had destroyed all the schools in Cambodia, many Cambodians cannot read, and many do not understand English. Peou hit the airwaves, both on radio and television. Each week on his shows, he talked in his native language about health care issues, such as the importance of flu shots.

The shows have made Peou a celebrity in his community and given him a certain amount of power to influence health care decisions. He also posts the shows on a Web site,, in hopes that his health programming can help Cambodians in Southeast Asia.

Many of the problems at Peou’s clinic, such as diabetes and high blood pressure, are similar to those of nonimmigrant communities. However, unlike nonimmigrant communities, Peou sees rampant post-traumatic stress disorder, due to the trauma and torture his patients witnessed or experienced in Cambodia. To address this, Peou is working to forge policy changes to improve care and expand coverage for immigrants.

As a new wave of Burmese and Iraqi immigrants arrive, each encounters and presents new challenges, such as finding health care providers who speak their language and understand their cultural traditions and practices.

“As a survivor myself, I saw so much suffering. But I was able to learn English, and do better,” said Peou. “The people who escape Cambodia and other countries where there is persecution do so for the future of their children. We need them to be healthy so that their children can fulfill their dreams.”