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Resident advocates for Cambodian immigrants: Resident Profile

Apala Egan/Special to the Town Crier
Usha Welaratna of Los Altos authored “Beyond the Killing Fields: Voices of Nine Cambodian Survivors in America.” Now retired, she teaches meditation through the city of Los Altos.

Advocating for Cambodian immigrants and teaching meditation are twin passions of longtime Los Altos resident Usha Welaratna.

Welaratna learned of the plight of Cambodian refugees while teaching anthropology at San Jose State University several years ago. Cambodians celebrate Buddhist festivals similar to those in her native Sri Lanka.

Like other newcomers to the United States, many Cambodians struggle with adapting to the language and culture.

Survivors of the Pol Pot regime’s concentration camps, the immigrants suffered from depression and other mental-health problems. Because their native language is Khmer, and many of the older generation speak French, they have difficulty assimilating.

An immigrant herself, Welaratna was attuned to the obstacles that immigrants face and determined to channel her efforts toward helping Cambodian refugees integrate into their new society. She worked extensively with Cambodian immigrants, encouraging cultural and family activities.

Welaratna chronicled her experiences in a book, “Beyond the Killing Fields: Voices of Nine Cambodian Survivors in America” (Stanford University Press, 1993).

She also helped local Cambodians establish children’s programs.

“She gave us advice, ideas and was very helpful,” said Sophany Bay, a native of Cambodia who now lives in San Jose. “She visited our temple several times.”

Retired from San Jose State University, Welaratna continues to teach, but not anthropology. Los Altos residents can find her at Hillview Community Center teaching meditation, which she has practiced since childhood. She underwent formal training at the Bhavana Society’s Meditation Center in West Virginia.

Many people believe that meditation involves sitting, Welaratna said, but walking meditation, which she teaches as well, is also an option.

“You don’t have to be Buddhist to practice meditation – it is for everyone,” she said. “People may need to focus their minds on a particular object – you can use a picture of a saint or a flower.”

Welaratna is scheduled to teach Mindfulness Meditation courses 10 a.m. to noon Tuesdays Feb. 4 through March 25 and 3-5 p.m. Thursdays Feb. 6 through March 27 in Room 2 at Hillview Community Center, 97 Hillview Ave., Los Altos.

For more information, visit losaltosrecreation.org.

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