Edmonton Man of Honour helps youth get out of gangs
Youth can often feel helpless in a world rife with problems, but one Edmonton man has been making a mark in his community since the age of 12. Somkhuun Thongdee is set to be honoured for his work with Edmonton youth at the annual Men of Honour awards April 12. Born in a refugee camp in Thailand, Somkhuun arrived in Edmonton at the age of seven after his parents escaped the killing fields of Cambodia. After seeing the challenges of racism and poverty among his peers firsthand, he decided to give back to his community by organizing homework help and community kitchens for fellow students at the age of 12. While churches in his community were offering help with some issues, Somkhuun saw gaps in support for students who were struggling, and took the initiative with a number of his friends to organize a homework club. The group quickly grew to 90 students, as the programming was expanded to include community kitchens that would teach students how to cook healthy food on a tight budget. As the group grew, supports also expanded to include music, sports, heritage languages, cultural dance and safe spaces for LGBT students. Somkhuun dedicated much of his teen years to these rapidly growing groups and programs. After trying out courses at several Edmonton post-secondary schools, he left his studies to dedicate his time to community work. The small homework club that started when he was 12 had rapidly grown, attracting thousands of youth as Somkhuun entered adulthood. "We went from 90 people to 4,500 people very quickly," he said. The group acquired a $1,000 grant for sports in 1998 and the programs continued to grow, largely through the work of young volunteers. The program soon connected with the Multicultural Health Brokers for funding and adopted the name Nasomosan, which means "creative opportunities" in the Khmer language. With so much exposure to youth involved in gangs while growing up, Somkhuun has often been asked why he never joined a gang himself. He gives credit for this accomplishment to his upbringing. "I always say I was afraid of getting killed," he said. "And they say 'By the gangs?' and I say 'No, by my mother!'" Beyond the homework help, community kitchens, and general support for youth during tough times, Somkhuun has personally intervened to help young people involved in gangs get out and turn their lives around. "We don't pull anyone out of gangs," he said. "They have to come to us for help. That's why it's successful. We're not trying to help anyone who doesn't want to be helped." If a youth involved in gangs does approach Nasomosan for help, workers aim to broker a deal with the gang for a peaceful exit. Often, youth are trapped in working for a gang because of large debts, said Somkhuun. "We try to help make an arrangement to get rid of the debt," he said. "They'll let them out as long as they're still making their payments." While the program will help youth get back into school, support them with their homework and help them find a job, they will not give them the money to pay off their debts. In response to this work, Somkhuun has been shot by area gang members three times throughout the course of his career. "Business was struggling and they took it out on me," he said. "They felt the work we were doing was interfering with the work they were doing. It wasn't personal." Somkhuun says he does not take any of the shootings personally, and is now good friends with some of his would-be assassins. He declined to press charges on the young people involved in the shootings, opting instead to help them turn their lives around. "They usually give a job like that to a really young kid who doesn't know me," he explained. "And then after that the gang doesn't want anything to do with them because they've got an attempted murder on their record." As such, young guns for hire are essentially viewed as disposable by Edmonton gangs. "A few months later I met the guy who shot me," said Samkhuun. "He needed my assistance to get off his addictions and we're still friends today. No hard feelings." Somkhuun says he is honoured to receive this award, but stresses that it belongs to the group as a whole. "I feel very proud of them and the things they've done," he said. "I'm honoured to be around them and see the amazing things they do. I do not feel that this award is mine, but everyone's - including the people at REACH who have been instrumental in helping us and guiding us. This belongs to everybody." "I never personally do anything. I'm just one of 900 people." Somkhuun will receive a Men of Honour Award at a banquet April 12. George Ishiekwene, another man successfully nominated by REACH Edmonton, will also receive an award at the banquet for his work among families in the immigrant and refugee community. George's story will be shared on our website later this month.