Twice in two years, Southeast Asian natives living in Stockton have suffered tragedy, their agony over the deaths of young children compelling compassion from a stunned public.
The drownings of four Cambodian youngsters - three of them brothers - who tumbled into the muddy Calaveras River last week while playing at the water's edge somehow exemplifies the terrors that confront the close-knit refugees, who fled turbulence and warfare to safety in the United States."They often don't speak the language, their customs are different and, they don't have much money. They are trying to get along in a strange country and it's hard," said Margaret Gomez, herself the daughter of Mexican immigrants. "They have each other and they stick together."
The latest deaths brought a response from city, school and police officials that reflected the lessons learned from an earlier tragedy, the Jan. 17, 1989, attack by gunman Patrick Purdy, who fired his AK-47 assault rifle into the nearby Cleveland Elementary School during the morning recess.
Purdy killed five Southeast Asian youngsters and wounded 29 others and a teacher. He then shot himself to death.
The school is about five blocks from the site of the drownings, although none of the victims attended there.
"This (school) district learned important lessons during that terrible tragedy," said N.Z. Carol, a spokeswoman for the Stockton Unified School District.
"There was a lot of counseling provided, and I think we've all become very, very sensitive to the cultural differences here. When these drownings occurred, everybody knew just exactly what to do. It just happened."
For example, the schools immediately sent counselors, psychologists and linguists into many of the classrooms to talk with the children, including the victims' friends and relatives.
At one school, the 1,000-student Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School where two of the victims attended classes, a child brought the local newspaper to class.
Teachers made copies of the stories, then distributed them among the students and discussed the events "almost in the form of class assignments," Carol said. "Each school handled it in its own way."
Some children drew pictures of the victims - their friends - and mailed them to the families out of respect. One picture depicted a group of children playing by a raging river. Another drawing showed one of the victims playing a game he loved, tetherball.
Representatives of a special community services unit, which provides comfort to victims and witnesses of tragedies, helped the low-income families of the victims, organizing trust funds that were set up, fielding donations and assisting with expenses for burials and food.
The dual tragedies have also brought visibility to Stockton's polyglot mix, in which a majority of residents are members of minority groups.
The largest single ethnic group in this city of 185,000 inhabitants is Hispanic, followed by Asian, Caucasian, black and American Indian. One study shows that 58 languages including a variety of dialects are spoken within the city limits.