Tararith Kho, founder of an after-school program for Cambodian-American students and parents, works with Ida Borin, a 2016 UMass Lowell graduate helping
Tararith Kho, founder of an after-school program for Cambodian-American students and parents, works with Ida Borin, a 2016 UMass Lowell graduate helping him develop the program, at Entrepreneurship for All in Lowell. SUN / JULIA MALAKIE (Julia Malakie)

LOWELL -- Tararith Kho was not a friend of the Cambodian government. As co-founder of a center that published a journal of fiction, essays and poetry sometimes critical of the government, he received anonymous death threats.

With that, Kho resigned.

He found a lifeline, coming to the United States in 2010 when he was named a fellow at Brown University's International Writer's Project, taking his wife, Amara Chhaya, and two young children with him. He then became a fellow at Harvard University's Scholar at Risk program, which helps people like Kho escape dangerous situations in order to continue their work.

Now in Lowell, the 43-year-old wants to give back, starting with an after-school program for Cambodian-American students and eventually their parents. Many young Cambodians in Lowell could afford to learn more about the heritage and culture, he said, and parents sometimes need a hand knowing the best ways to help their children in school.

"Many Cambodians who live in Lowell spend a lot of time working in factories," he said. Helping their children with schoolwork can lose priority. And, in Cambodian culture, teachers are revered to the point that parents don't want to be seen as questioning them.

Kho had an idea to help solve those problems, and found his way to Entrepreneurship for All, also known as EforAll and formerly the Merrimack Valley Sandbox.

"We're always looking for people with an entrepreneurial spirit, and Tararith definitely has that," said Lianna Kushi, executive director of EforAll's Lawrence and Lowell branches.


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Kho is one of more than a dozen students in an intensive 12-week biannual program that EforAll runs, connecting those who have creative ideas with coaches and mentors who can help them reach their goals. The accelerator program has helped start companies including Bishop's Legacy restaurant, Mill City Grows and Social Pup.

Kho knew little of the United States before moving here six years ago. He had only visited the West Coast briefly, and knew of only two states: California and New York. He knew he'd be moving to Rhode Island, but neither he nor his travel agent had heard of it.

Once there, Kho wasted no time in becoming involved in his new country, serving on a board for a Buddhist temple in Rhode Island.

"I want to tell everybody, come to this place," said Tararith Kho, who launched an after-school program for Cambodian-American students and their
"I want to tell everybody, come to this place," said Tararith Kho, who launched an after-school program for Cambodian-American students and their parents at the Entrepreneurship for All program in Lowell. "We have each other." He's joined by Lianna Kushi, executive director of EforAll's Lawrence and Lowell branches. SUN / JULIA MALAKIE (Julia Malakie)

Kho has now carved out a niche in Lowell, teaching Cambodian language and culture at Middlesex Community College and UMass Lowell. He teaches Khmer language classes at the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association on Sundays, and hopes to someday start a Cambodian-American writer's association.

He wants to help a younger generation in the same way.

"I want the challenge," he said, of improving the city's Cambodian community. "That's why I want to stay in Lowell."

Those who've worked with Kho have seen the impact he can make.

"Lowell is really lucky to have him and his family here," Kushi said.

"He is very modest. He's an amazing person," said Sovanna Pouv, executive director of the CMAA, which will host the classes. "He is very well respected, and he can bring people together."

Kho has also impressed his coach in the EforAll program, business consultant Teg Rood.

"It's a very intense introduction into what the nuts and bolts of starting a business are," said Rood, a Lowell resident, of the class. "His vision is to connect this community in America with his culture, which they can lose a grasp on if someone doesn't do something. It's a fantastic idea."

Rood has no doubts of Kho's success but said that starting such a program isn't easy and will take time.

But Kho doesn't appear to be looking for easy.

He was born in 1974, the year before the Khmer Rouge came into power. His father died while fighting the regime. 

Growing up with his mother and brother, Kho took odd jobs, including as a house cleaner and motorcycle taxi driver, before going to the Royal University of Phnom Penh on a scholarship, according to the Harvard Gazette.

Kho is modest and reluctant to talk much about his own background. But he talked about the stark difference between his childhood and his professional life in the United States to the Harvard Gazette in 2012.

"I heard people talk about places like Harvard, Brown and universities in Europe," he told the university's news website. "But I come from a poor place close to the Thai border. I never dreamed I would come here."

Kho's class is planned to host up to 30 students five days a week after school. It will start in middle-school grades before expanding.

"I want to tell everybody, come to this place," he said. "We have each other."

Follow Grant Welker on Twitter and Tout @SunGrantWelker.