Saroeun Soeun, Cambodian Association of Illinois
Over the years that Saroeun Soeun has served her fellow Cambodian refugees as a Community Health Worker, she has touched many lives. At the Cambodian Association of Illinois (CAI), where Saroeun is employed, she provides health education, outreach, interpretation, and linkage to care to the target population of nearly 4,000 Cambodian refugees in the Chicagoland area. Fear and ignorance in the face of disease are common in the community Saroeun serves. Their experience as refugees from the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot regime, coupled with their cultural and linguistic isolation, makes her community particularly vulnerable. Saroeun arrived in Chicago as a refugee at the age of 17, after escaping from Cambodia and spending years in a UN refugee camp in Thailand. She was able to complete her high school education in Chicago, and undertook two years of “general studies” at a local community college while working part-time as a receptionist at CAI. Eventually, she left her studies when a full time position opened up at CAI as a family health outreach worker, a position that eventually developed into her role as a health educator.
Saroeun was selected to be trained in AHC’s Hepatitis Education and Prevention Program nearly a decade ago and as a bilingual educator, Saroeun is an important link to health education and services for her community. She describes herself as “a connector between people and providers,” helping people who do not have health insurance access health care, often through a local community health center where other services as well can be provided. Saroeun also serves as an interpreter, accompanying her clients to their doctor and hospital visits or making herself available for phone interpretation. She says she feels very good when she can help her community members with the health information they need or making important linkages to care.
The local Buddhist temple is the center of the Cambodian community, and an important venue for Saroeun’s work as a community health educator. The monks view her as a valuable resource, referring community members to her when they lose their health insurance, need social services, or could benefit from her health education training. At the temple, Saroeun can make announcements about upcoming hepatitis education and screening events, and pass out Khmer-language brochures on hepatitis. Because their community is relatively small and does not have its own media outlets, word of mouth is the principal way of getting messages out among Cambodian refugees. Married with four children, including a young set of twins, Saroeun is actively involved in her community’s social and cultural events, as well as religious activities at the temple. Taking advantages of these opportunities,Saroeun frequently conducts health education and outreach at community social events such as birthday parties and cultural festivities.
In her years of working on health promotion programs, Saroeun has learned that her community members often don’t feel the need to engage in prevention, either because they do not focus on their own health or because they don’t “feel sick.” Saroeun workshard to explain the concept of prevention to a community used to only seeking health care in an emergency. When asked what is her most effective strategy in hepatitis education and outreach, Saroeun simply states “one-on-one conversations, and don’t force anyone.” Saroeun’s reputation as a “helper,” her commitment to her community, and her understanding of the cultural nuances of health education and promotion makes her a community catalyst that the Asian Health Coalition is proud to acknowledge.