The following profile is from our Changemakers Series

Somkhuun Thongdee says the work his youth program does is “very boring,” but for more than 20 years, it has been helping change the lives of hundreds of Edmonton youth. Somkhuun is the program coordinator for the youth groups now run by the Multicultural Family Resource Society, a non-profit organization whose mission is to improve the well-being of immigrant and refugee children, youth, and families.

Somkhuun has devoted his life to the youth program, working with young people from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. every weekday. He set up the program’s office in an apartment next door to the building where he lives in the Central McDougall neighborhood so that he's never far away from the kids.

Community researcher Crys Vanier and I meet Somkhuun at the office. He makes tea in the immaculate kitchen and offers us pastries he’s picked up just for our interview. After only a few minutes of listening to his story, we can feel his passion for his work.   

What is your background and how did your work with youth start? Where it started was first all the stuff that I went through during the war and refugee camp in Cambodia as a child. You know the historic background. I don't need to go into it here, how my parents and family were treated.

My father took about three months to plan an escape from a labour camp. Probably 100 of them ran out one night into that cut and painstakingly covered trail to the jungle. The elders decided on marriages. Let's get these young men over here who are single and then match them up. So I was born there and carried into the refugee camp. It was like Tarzan, like The Jungle Book. That's what it was. I was very little. I was a baby when I was brought into the refugee camp, so I have no memory of the jungle. I know more of the refugee camp. I remember stuff at about four or five. From there, we were government-sponsored refugees to Canada, which means we had to pay back the loan. We were sponsored, and we came, landed at Vancouver International Airport, lived in Cranbrook, BC, for two years., Then Dad found Edmonton. There was a little community here already, so they figured why not come and try here. That's how we ended up in Edmonton in July of '87. And this building, we’ve been in since 1989.

1989 is a long time. The offices for your work with the school are here and the apartments of your parents, your brother, and you. Yeah. It's a nice little area. Everything's convenient here, and the people, I love the people here, like in the community, I mean, just beautiful people. I am curious about people. That curiosity came when I was in the camp. In the refugee camp, there were not a lot of toys and things to do. You had two options. One, you went to work with your parents if they were volunteering in the camps doing something, like laundry or cooking or cleaning the streets or things like that, the dirt, there really weren't paved streets, like what it looks like with 200, 300,000 people in one area and there's a barnyard-like farm.

I was curious about people, like what people did, why they did what they did. I don't know why I was curious. I got into a lot of trouble when I was younger because you ask inappropriate questions as a kid. You start spying on people as a kid, following them around, and so you get into trouble. When I came to the school here, I was the same way. I couldn't get rid of that.

"I have no memory of the jungle. I know more of the refugee camp. I remember stuff at about four or five. From there, we were government-sponsored refugees to Canada."

People told me to stop. They said, “You're gonna get yourself into trouble. You're always asking questions, always wanting to know what people are doing, where they're going.” And because of my age at the time, I was interested in people my age, like what they did before they came to school. Why is that kid always late? Why is that kid always dressed up nice? Why do they always have food? How come that kid doesn't have any food? How come that kid is always crying in class? How come that kid is always angry?

I was always looking around the classroom, and there were times, once in a while, when I was curious about the teacher, but mostly it was just kids. Because I always figured if you're a teacher, you have it all figured out, which as I got older, I realized that was not the case. I should have been more curious about them.

That's how I started  and then to see all the pain and suffering and the poverty and then the good things, the beauty, and all that mix, it just kinda got me asking a lot of questions about myself and my history and my background and my parents and stuff like that.

That was all elementary school. It wasn't until grade seven when I heard something outside, and I remember this was the first time I heard this. There was this group of kids that went to this church. It's still over here. It's no longer owned or run by the same people. Every Friday, they would go to this church. Every Saturday, they would go to this church. Every Sunday, they would go to this church. We saw them, and I was like, ”Well, I'm not doing anything, maybe I should go hang out with them ‘cause they said they played floor hockey, and they played basketball.” It wasn't connected through the school. It was just their own little thing.

I went, and the first month or so went very well. Everything they said was beautiful. They gave us hamburgers and hot dogs and fruits and vegetables, and we could play all the sports we wanted. They had it all lined up, programmed, and stuff like this. After the first month, they started to ask us about what was happening at home, and they were telling us how those things could be solved through religion. I knew it was a trick, but for the whole first month I was there, they never talked about anything to do with the church. They said this was a youth program, children's program, and I said, “I'm children. I'm youth. I can go.”

After the second month, they started to talk about it. They started to tell us what our parents were doing wrong, what was wrong with our culture, and a lot of it had to do with our belief systems. Some people believed in Buddhism. Some people followed the Islamic faith. They started to go off, and half the kids really believed them. It was a very multi-ethnic community at a Christian-denominated church. The youth group was predominantly kids from the community, and we were all over the place.

I didn't enjoy what was happening after the first month. It was very nice, but they started to give us rules. We couldn't wear certain jewelry or necklaces. They weren't even real. They were what our parents made for us, like lucky charms. We couldn't wear that, and we weren't allowed to communicate any longer in our own language. We were to make every effort to speak English.

Then people started to drop out. I hung around right till the end ‘cause I was worried about some of the other kids ‘cause they were coming from tough families already, and they were seeing this as a nice place, but at the same time, they were being manipulated. Yeah, I could have left when it first started, but I didn't want to leave alone. If I was gonna leave, I had to have something to go to ‘cause if I left, I would have just ended up in the community at home. At home, it was fine, but remember this was grade seven. I was always thinking, organizing, doing something ‘cause that's how you had to grow up or you were gonna be in a whole lot of trouble.

So I told my father, and he went and talked to a friend ‘cause this man was already running a volleyball thing in this gym here on Tuesday night with a group of like ten, twelve kids from all over the place, not just Cambodia. My father said, “Hang out with him and see if the other kids come.” We had no conception of what a youth group was.

That went on for about a month. So I was a volunteer. I was teaching, and some of them were my age. Some of them were younger. Then I talked to my father and said, “Look, okay, the one hour on Tuesday is great, but this can grow if we're allowed to do other things.” And my father said, “We cannot. We only have an hour.” So I said, “I go to the school. Why don't you and me and him, we go talk to the principal and see if we can get a couple more hours, if it doesn't hurt to ask.”

Two more hours and we were able to do other sports. Then we just started to focus on our thing. We decided we shouldn't just be a rec, maybe we could do a community kitchen, share resources, share food, share recipes, and then we expanded to focus on homework. The rec thing was happening. We got the kitchen, and we would just use whoever's kitchen was available, then homework, helping each other with homework.

From those three things, we decided to focus on two very important things. One was the history of our parents ‘cause a lot of people were smoking and drinking and gambling, a lot of family life. We heard the same thing all the time, “Oh, my Dad is just bad or my Mom is just bad,” but we didn't know why they were doing that. 

We decided to focus on their history. Then we started to learn about post-traumatic stress disorder. They were not evil-hearted people. They actually had issues, but they had no one to talk to and no one to help them deal with this, and so we learned that. For those who understood, it was better. For those who still thought it was their parents’ excuses, it got worse.

How it got worse for some of them was they'd go into a gang to get away from what was happening at home, the poverty value. There wasn't enough food. The electricity wasn't on. Their parents couldn't provide for them. They wanted a new shirt or new shoes, and so they had to join the gangs to make money to take care of themselves. Some would join to take care of their family and themselves.

There was a core group of us who were very opinionated. We thought we knew everything and the world didn't exist unless it came out of our mouths. We were kids, right. That's how we thought.

Then another problem started to emerge. This was in high school. Gangs, everything was taken care of. We knew why they were doing it. It was ‘cause things weren't good at home. 

"I stuttered horribly, so I had befriended a fellow who I always thought was a psychic ‘cause he knew everything before I could finish."

If you're focusing on a healthy family, then it starts at home. If you're focusing on a healthy individual, that can happen anywhere. It doesn't have to happen at home. A lot of people come from broken homes, but they are doing very well because they have found that support somewhere else. We knew at a very young age that those were two options, either focus on building a healthy family or focus on building a healthy individual.

We were working with other youth in grades seven, eight, and nine. If we knew we couldn’t change the situation at home, then we had to find a place for them where they could have at least a little bit of that support. When they went home, if they were still going home, they knew that they could look forward to something over here. So we were also creating healthy communities. 

There were six of us who started this. I had a hard time simply because I didn't communicate very well. I had a speech impediment. I stuttered horribly, so I had befriended a fellow who I always thought was a psychic ‘cause he knew everything before I could finish. He would say, “Oh, I already know.” And then he brought in five others, so there were seven of us in total, myself and six others who became the core group leading this little movement.

Sadly, between the years of '92 and 2001, they were all killed. 2001 was when I kinda took over ‘cause no one else wanted to. They were seeing that maybe that person had been targeted, the leader. Then when I took over, I refrained from using the word "leader." In high school people were using these words, and I said, “I don't want to use that word. I want to use the words ‘hanging out and helping out.’” That's it. Hanging out and helping out. I think that's why I’ve lasted this long. Now, I am more comfortable with it, like on my business card, if my supervisor wants to use that word, that's her business. She has to justify the funding to the funders and organizations, but I still see myself as just "hanging out and helping out."

After graduating high school, that was the same time I met Yvonne Chiu from the health program. That was when it took off because then we learned about this thing that's actually called a youth group and that there were other youth groups existing in the city. We were not alone, and we were definitely not special or unique or individual in any way. Some people were associated with mainstream organizations, which were helping fund their group. Other people were grassroots movements. Yvonne explained all this.

At that time, I was working, right after high school. All of us worked whatever job we were working, and we kept the rec clubs going at the gym. We kept the homework clubs going, the community kitchens. We put our money into it and kept it going, from '92 to '98. By '98, '99, we were already probably close to 200, 250 students across the city. Everyone met where they were supposed to meet because it was safer that way. It was easier to organize that way, and we never had the facility to have 50 people at one place. We would have five different homework clubs happening, depending on the subject. The Social Studies went to Bob's house, or Science 10 went to Michael's house or . . .

Everything you are talking about is sort of decentralized, organic. Right, yeah.

So there were between 200 to 250 kids in different youth groups? Yeah. We were connected. We told people we were part of “The Group” ‘cause at that time that's what we called ourselves. We forgot everyone else's names. We just called ourselves “The Group.” No one had used that yet, but they had connected to the group. They'd connected to the helpers, who were me and the core group. We didn't make the decision. We just tried and co-ordinated and figured out how things worked. So each of these, like there'd be 15 kids in Clairview or 30 in Mill Woods, so they were basically a group of friends. They knew each other, and they had an interest. So maybe the Mill Woods group's interest was homework. The Clairview group’s was mountain biking or something like that.

They would be connected to us because of relationships and friendships. We never said . . . I don't know how to say this . . . They did their own thing. They had the power, the control that we didn't have. The main group here was the leadership component. The understanding of what's happening with you, your family, your community, your neighborhood, we had that. That was our focus. So we had to learn if we were working in Central McDougall, that's what it's called, or we had to learn what was happening in Clairview so that we could better help that group over in Clairview. Those kinds of things.

We had roughly 250 connections. And they had their own youth groups. Their groups were together because of language and culture and that kind of stuff, which was very helpful because some of our kids could benefit from being with that group. That's when we started to share what their groups were doing. There was a group of five, six groups that came together and figured out how to get funding, how to support some of the work that they were doing.

Then there was a group that was Spanish speaking. Then there was another from Kurdistan. Then there was another from Iraq. Then there was another from the Congo, the French-speaking Congolese community. Ours was more multi-ethnic, interest based; we had people from all over the place. At the time, we didn't think anything of it. We didn't understand why people were so excited. Then we realized their groups were all organized according to culture or religion. Then we realized we'd actually found a formula that allowed people to come and go as they wished—interests and passions.

So people were aligning with what they loved doing, as opposed to what their origin was? The only thing if we were preachy at all in all of the things we were doing was that we thought the violence with the gangs was just horrible, what they were doing. We wanted to be the opposite, meaning that we would not behave in that way. We would always find ways to mediate or work things out because we could not as a group be violent. That was out of the question. We could not be arguing and yelling and spreading gossip and rumors, so we had to find something that worked. We didn't know what it was. We just said, “Let's be nice to each other. Just start from there. Everyone just be nice. Talk normal to each other and start from there.”

That's when we started to put things together, like training and workshops and manuals and stuff.

When we first started out telling kids to say no to smoking, say no to drugs, don't drink, don't go to that area, it was a turnoff. So rather than saying, “Don't do this, don't do that,” we just said, “Maintain your health to the highest it can be so you can be more helpful to yourself, your family members.” We would challenge people to be the healthiest they could be as one and help others to achieve that and then grades in school, their marks in school.

Then everyone had to understand what was happening at home. That was very important, whether they liked it or not or whether they planned to leave. We asked that everyone understood that first. So a kid said they were gonna go join a gang. We just wanted to know their thoughts about how they saw things at home.

The whole community, across the city, we wanted to know what was really happening over there because we were not getting the whole picture here. We knew they got money to sell the drugs, but what else were they getting? Why were they going? Then we realized things like protection. They got to carry guns around, so that was more protection, unlimited food. They were sleeping in wonderful places. They actually had beds. Then we knew what we were up against.

We were walking around trying to say to the parents, “Look, say you're not well so you can get help ‘cause either way your kid is going.” The government does not take any kids away. There is no evidence of this. They don't just come for no reason and take them away. We were trying to get them to understand how that worked when they heard stories of kids getting taken away. Sometimes both parents were dead, and they had nowhere to go. They had to go somewhere. We were trying to explain to them and to say, “The gangs are taking your kids away before the government does, so let's wake up here.”

At the time, we had no clue that this was helpful to a lot of people, a lot of things. We just did it because we thought, “Well, we haven't tried that yet. Let's do that.” Someone years later said, “That was like, you know, that's called mindfulness and self-awareness and reflection, and some of your programs are not just intervention and prevention, they’re actually resiliency.” I said, “I actually don't know any of these words. If you want to call it that, go ahead, but this is what we're doing.”

In 2004, when someone asked us to explain what we were doing, and they started to put those words to the stuff, we realized, “Oh, we are actually doing something good.” We just were doing it because it was something we did all the time. Seriously, we didn't know that, and I didn't know what social work was until I was 21.

I remember someone explaining it to me. When I asked her, “You work with kids—what is your job?” She goes, “This would be social work.” I said, “Who said you could do this?” She goes, “Well, if you stuck around in post-secondary school, you would know.”

Well, I just wanted to get stuff done. Why learn the language when I can accomplish it?

"Our program and how we work may be very simple, basic everyday things, but it is so important to a lot of kids because some kids don't have that."

How did you define success? Kids were still coming to us. Kids would come, do well, move on, and then there was another group of kids. They went and told other kids, and other kids would come, so we knew that we were helping somebody ‘cause they believed in us enough to drop their kids off or send their kids over, or the kids themselves would even want to come hang out.

Years ago, a group from Lowell, Massachusetts, heard about our work and were fascinated. They asked me to share, and when I did, they were like, “That's it?”

We don’t have too much exciting stuff in our program, but I was trying to say to them that we brush our teeth every day, we shower every day, we do laundry every week. Our program and how we work may be very simple, basic everyday things, but it is so important to a lot of kids because some kids don't have that. Some kids don't have breakfast every day. They don't have a chance to shower every day. They wear the same clothes four days straight. There are a lot of things. For people who may have it, it's very boring. If people eat three meals a day every day, that's pretty boring, but for some of these kids, if they get a chance to eat two meals a day, that's excitement, that's something great happening in their lives.

We've been at this for 20-something years, and someone said, “When are we gonna be done?” I said, “You know what? When the idea of poverty and all this stuff ends, that's when our work ends. If you want to do exciting things, you can move on from here as a volunteer, but I'm gonna just stay here. This is where I think I'm helpful, and this is where the majority of the people think we're helpful, so we just stick to what we feel is helpful.

I always say there's no need for us to have an amusement park. We as a group, as an organization, don't need to be an amusement park. One already exists. Why don't we just find where we're helpful and just stick to that? It might be boring. It might be simple, not very attractive, not exciting, but it's helpful. It's helping. Can you imagine if all the city staff workers who pick up the garbage all of a sudden all of them said, “I hate this job,” and all of them started complaining? The whole place would be a mess. Who's gonna come pick it up? I'm pretty sure some of them feel that way, but they still go to work.

What are all the organizations you have been involved with recently? To respect and honor their contribution, I could list the Multicultural Health Brokers Co-op, the Multicultural Family Resource Society, the Central McDougall Community League, McDougall School, the City of Edmonton, the T3 Fund—T3 stands for Teri Taylor-Tunski—at the Edmonton Community Foundation, and a group called Sunrise Rotary that meets way out in the West End—a bunch of people who got wind of our work at a golf tournament or something and called us up out of the blue and said, “Would you like five thousand dollars to do some of your work,” and we're like, “Are you kidding me? Of course, we would.”

I'm pretty sure I'm missing a whole bunch of people. The Edmonton Center for Race and Culture, of course, is very supportive. I speak of the Multicultural Family Resource Society because that is our umbrella organization, our fiscal agent. One of our other funders is the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission and the Royal Bank of Canada.

Is there anything—specific learnings—that you're recounting as we are going through that you would love to just tell someone else to do sooner. Yeah. The biggest thing is to love yourself, whatever it is that you're in. To say, “It's okay. This is the best I can do, and when I know better, learn more, I can do better,” but not to beat ourselves up for the situation we're in. A lot of us, we beat ourselves up. We don't understand that it is very unproductive, it is very harmful, to get down on yourself for not having this or accomplishing that and for not understanding that, in time, those things can happen.

The second thing would be to fully try to understand other people. I don't mean you have to like them, have to hang out with them, just that we have to understand their reality. We don't have to be friends. We don't have to approve or agree. We just need to understand and just keep that understanding there and keep it open ‘cause it continues to change. That one I understood. I understood that very young, but the loving oneself I didn't. I didn't understand where that was helpful, what me loving myself had to do with me being able to help others. The real help is actually that I can help them better if I do love myself.

Where would someone find you on any given day? At the programs, McDougall School, with kids, here in the office. All the rec programs happen at the school. For example, Monday through Friday evenings, we have all the rec programs that happen there from six to nine. The homework club is done here, or it can be done over at the gym too, depending on who they want to help them. If the people are here to help them, they come here. If the people are at the gym, they go there. There are activities and sports happening, but there are also benches and tables and stuff and little areas where they can go and just get some help.

The collective kitchen is out of the office here, or it's out of my kitchen in the next building or my Mom's kitchen downstairs. It depends on where the group is comfortable—here or two blocks down at someone else's kitchen. I’m all over, wherever they are. I'm the only employee. Everyone else is a volunteer. I live very simply. At least half my cheque goes back to the program. I don't need a lot, and the program and the work are part of my life, so it helps me too.

For more information about the youth program run by the Multicultural Family Resource Society, visit http://www.mfrsedmonton.org/.