At a distance, the only stand-out feature about Asma Cham is her hijab – the head-covering that Muslim women wear as part of their religion.
For most people, this is the limit of their perception of her — a typical Muslim portrayal perpetuated by paranoid mainstream media.
But under her hijab is a complex identity with a complicated cultural background — not unlike anyone else. But, her background is a compelling mix of unknown cultures, underrepresented ethnic groups, and stigmatized religions. She is Asian American and Cham American Muslim – a triple minority – and is proud of it.
She’s a twenty-something year-old living with her family in Seattle, where they arrived in 1993. They survived at first with the help of an uncle who sponsored the family. Cham remembers fleeing Vietnam because of the discrimination and abuse suffered due to their race and religion.
Cham people hail from the Kingdom of Champa, a country that flourished for 1600 years in Southeast Asia occupying the area that is now central and south Vietnam. The empire began its decline in the 15th century, falling under Vietnamese control and was eventually annexed. Its people, most of whom became Muslims after Islam was introduced by Arab traders, fled to neighboring countries, including Cambodia. Today, while Cham people are considered an ethnic group with no offical homeland, they possess a rooted culture, language and vibrant heritage.
As a child, Cham experienced a tight-knit community with fellow Cham Muslims, but upon arriving to the U.S. she felt isolated as the Cham community in Seattle was small and the larger surrounding communities seemed unaware, judgmental, or negligent of her community. This made Cham reflective of her perceived identity and role in her adopted country.
“Most people do not know who Cham people are, and to be Cham, Muslim, and American, it’s hard to find my place in this society.”
Most Americans associate Islam with terrorism and the Middle East. Few would guess that the majority of Muslims actually live in Asian countries like Indonesia (highest population: 200 million), Pakistan, and India. In Cambodia, there are 236,000 Cham Muslims. In Vietnam, there are 157,000. Cham’s father is from Cambodia while her mother is from Vietnam. Explaining her background to those curious becomes a bit tedious and long-winded, she says.
“I suppose to avoid all that hassle I could say [I’m from] Cambodia or Vietnam, but I do not see myself as Vietnamese or Cambodian,” the UW graduate said.
Being a minority is usually a matter of belonging to a certain group. For her, it’s much more complex as she embodies the customs and beliefs of several.
“I definitely feel like a minority within a minority within a minority: I’m Asian American, Muslim, and Cham,” she explained.
Cham said she always felt a place within the small yet lively Cham community in Seattle. She describes weddings where any Cham person – even if you don’t know the bride or groom – can show up to eat and catch up with friends. There are also Islamic holidays like Eid ul-Fitr and Eid al-Adha that prompt big gatherings and celebrations. At the center of attention are the kids; who get goodies and money passed out to them.
Today, most Cham are scattered around Asia with most living in Cambodia and Vietnam. Top estimates put their population at around half a million in the world, and only several hundred in the Seattle area.
Under the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970’s, Cham Muslims residing in Cambodia were singularly targeted for genocide and as many as 500,000 were killed. Any of their lands or possessions were confiscated and cultural artifacts destroyed. Habitat loss often refers to endangered species, but for this group of people, it’s a historical fact.
But the Cham people persevered and returned to their native lands throughout southeast Asia. Some immigrated to the U.S., but the numbers were few and in no comparison to the Vietnamese refugee immigration waves of the 1970s thru early 1990s.
“There aren’t many Cham people left in this world, so it does feel nice to meet one,” said Cham.
She says she feels responsible to continue the heritage and preserve the legacy of the Cham people.
“I want to educate others about Champa … before it goes into extinction. I have pride in who I am.”
It’s challenging to find one’s place in society being Cham American Muslim, but this can hardly stop her from trying to make it a better place. She currently works for Health Alliance International, an organization that works with governments to strengthen and provide health care for all, regardless of race or religion.