Chhaya Chhoum and her family lived in refugee camps in Thailand and the Philippines before being resettled to the US. After the US’s refugee resettlement program abandoned her family and thousands of Southeast Asian refugees in the Bronx, she organized her community through the newly created Youth Leadership Project. She took on slumlords, overcrowded schools, and cutbacks in translation services at public assistance centers and local health clinics. Chhaya harnessed the energy of youth in a community that has lost much of its adult generations. In 2002, Chhaya put out a call to Southeast Asian organizers across the country to train and strategize against welfare reform and the secret repatriation agreement between the US and Cambodia, which catapulted the deportation of thousands of Southeast Asian refugees. It was in the Bronx, that the Southeast Asian Freedom Network and the Southeast Asian movement for social justice started.
In 2012 she co-founded Mekong NYC, empowering Southeast Asians through arts, culture, community organizing, and advocacy. Its work in the Bronx honors the history of the Bronx and all its people. Chhaya’s award-winning, strategic and innovative leadership has been critical to the movement and has laid the foundation for stopping numerous deportations of Cambodian refugees and ushering in the right to return campaign. Her achievements were recognized by the Ford Foundation and the Petra Foundation. Her work was featured in a documentary called “Eating Welfare” and in the NBC Asian America “Deported” series. She is the executive director of Mekong NYC and serves on the board of the National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development. She is also a mother of three.