Tracy Harachi receives four to five calls each day from Seattle-area Cambodian immigrants who seek her help as a well-known advocate for their health and safety. When her cell phone rings and its caller ID shows the Northwest Detention Center, it could foretell a quick check-in chat or an hour-long counseling session.
On the day when we talk, she’s grappling with how to help two Cambodians who had been deported while coping with mental health issues. She’s trying to find them housing in Cambodia, and she’s worried what will happen if they stop taking their medication.
Harachi’s work with Cambodian immigrants in the Pacific Northwest is one of many ways that she is trying to help Cambodians recover from the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, which devastated the country and tortured and killed its citizens in the 1970s.
“There’s endless, endless work to do be done in supporting Cambodians,” said Harachi, an associate professor in the UW School of Social Work. The Outstanding Public Service Award to Harachi recognizes her role in helping a Cambodian university establish the country’s first college-level social work program. By training social workers in Cambodia, the program is a way to address the country’s ongoing problems with poverty, health issues and human rights violations.
“Should we ever doubt that one person can indeed change the world, we need only look at Dr. Tracy Harachi for evidence!” wrote Edwina Uehara, dean of the UW School of Social Work, and Dorothy Van Soest, former dean of the school and UW social work professor, in their letter supporting Harachi’s nomination for the award. “Our amazement in her efforts and commitment is compounded even more when we realize she has no intention of stopping until Cambodia’s ability to address the multiple legacies of genocide, civil war and colonization is dramatically changed,” they wrote.
Carol Rodley, U.S. ambassador to Cambodia, also praised Harachi’s efforts in Cambodia: “It is not so often that one person is able to make such a difference in the development of a country. Tracy Harachi has had a huge impact and has helped to build an institution that contributes directly to peace, reconciliation and prosperity in Cambodia.”
Harachi emphasizes that many others have contributed to developing the social work program in Cambodia. “This isn’t just about me. Other individuals have donated money and time,” she said.
Harachi visited the country for the first time in 2000. She had been helping Cambodian immigrants to the United States since the early 1980s – just after the Khmer Rouge regime ended – and her visit was a way for her to see how what was happening in Cambodia contributed to the issues she saw when Cambodians immigrated.
At the beginning of her visit, a Cambodian immigrant and friend who had survived the Khmer Rouge massacre took Harachi to see killing fields and torture and interrogation facilities. “She wanted me to see what she had been through,” Harachi said.
Many foreigners try to help by using their own ideas of what will benefit Cambodia, Harachi said, but what works better is to “support Cambodians to do their own work.”
That’s the approach she’s taken with helping the Royal University of Phnom Penh, whose administrators asked her to create a social work program at their university in 2004. Since then, she has advised on curricula, mentored new faculty and fundraised to get the program off the ground. She makes about four trips to Cambodia each year.
The first phase of the program was for Cambodian students to come to the UW School of Social Work: one Cambodian student came to UW from 2006 to 2009, four more from 2007 to 2009 and another will attend from 2011 to 2013.
After finishing their master’s degrees in social work at UW, the students returned to Cambodia to help form the new social work program. They serve as faculty in the new social work department in Cambodia, whose students do fieldwork focused on sex traffic victims, HIV survivors, disabled citizens and others. Sixty-four students are enrolled in the Royal University of Phnom Penh social work program, and the first class of 21 social workers will graduate next year.
“They want to be change agents. They’re the generation who will make their country more democratic and more just,” Harachi said. “They inspire me to do the work that I do and offer me hope for Cambodia’s future.”