A report in the Texas Observer stories an unlikely three-way conflict between a community of Cambodian refugees, a collection of anti-government groups and public aid agencies.
According to the report, several right-wing organizations blocked federal and state emergency management officials from entering the community known as “Little Cambodia” near Rosharon, about 40 miles south of Houston.
The community, like many in southeast Texas, was devastated by Hurricane Harvey. The small, self-reliant group of about 200 families depended on harvesting water spinach, a staple of Asian cuisine, for its income.
The crop and the community were all but destroyed from the heavy rains that pounded the area for a week. Since the population was so isolated and independent, government officials did not visit the area until more than a week after the storm subsided.
The first to arrive to the community’s aid was a gathering of right-wing groups there were working on disaster relief and reconstruction efforts in nearby Alvin. The groups, including the American Freedom Keepers, the Confederate Riders of America and the New York Light Foot Militia, came into Little Cambodia Sept. 5 to volunteer their help with repairs and coordinate the delivery of food and supplies.
American Freedom Keepers leader Francis Marion, who was interviewed at length in the report, established a headquarters where his published regular updates on Facebook. His social media activity was finally drawing attention to the plight of the forgotten community, and resulted in money being raised to support their efforts.
However, what started out as a charitable effort reportedly began to morph into into alleged intimidation. The groups reportedly accosted FEMA investigators who showed up on Sept. 10, a TV news reporter and another volunteer from outside the group who came to help.
They also allegedly told Little Cambodia residents to refuse help from outside agencies, including FEMA, and screened all donations from outsiders.
“It’s been a really awakening experience to see what it means for people to live on their own, live their way, make their choices. It really is the American Dream,” Marion reportedly said in a Facebook Live video that has since been taken down.
Ultimately, the community leaders, who reportedly felt they were being cut out of the decision-making process, insisted they begin cooperating with FEMA. As they invited FEMA back, the far-right groups began to leave.
While most group members left by mid-November, many say they plan to return in April to celebrate Cambodian New Year, reportedly at the community’s request.
Groups like Sewa International, a Hindu relief organization, and Houston-area church groups have since sent donations and volunteers. Little Cambodia residents began receiving the FEMA checks, though the payouts were reportedly hardly sufficed to cover rebuilding costs.