Thriving market in FDR Park evolves out of Southeast Asian refugee community

May is Asian American Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander Heritage Month and FDR Park is home to Southeast Asian Market vendors. Strolling the stalls, customers can find traditional street barbecue, spicy tropical salads, sweet drinks and so much more. Additionally, for this refugee community, finding belonging took many years.

Countries represented in the market include Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam and Laos.

The crowds gather around the hot smoke of the grills, and, nearby, fresh green papaya is found for salads.

"We cook chicken, beef, sausage," said vendor Doauk Nay.

Freshly pressed sugar cane is found in the market. Khai Chiev runs Suga Daddy at the Southeast Asian Market. "I’m Cambodian. I grew up in South Philadelphia," Chiev remarked. "This is actually where we found our space. I’m over 40 now. I’m still here."

FDR Park became a green sanctuary space for refugee families missing their homeland in Southeast Asia. For over 20 years, families were illegally vending, sometimes facing fines and arrest. At times, their equipment was confiscated.

"They are so used to living back at home that, you know, vending is basically their way to go. You see it all in the street. Street food is like the real thing, back home," Business Service Manager Jennie Nam said.

Nam is the Co-Founder of the Southeast Asian Market and two years ago the vendors organized into the Vendors Association of FDR Park. She’s now with the Commerce Department and says they’ve come a long way to find their permanent home in South Philadelphia.

"I look back just two years ago. We were still hiding in the bushes," Nam added. "We were still unofficial, but now, since we made the partnership and everything is growing, it’s like you look around and you see it’s not just for the Southeast Asian community. You can see it’s obviously for the common public."

People from all walks of life, whether Philly residents or beyond, make the trip to experience the delicious food and shopping for themselves.

"I love this place, I love this place," Chiev said. "This is like home to me. Seeing all these refugees – people that were here and I’m one of the refugees that was here back when I was like 12-years-old. So, this feels like home. I’m not going anywhere."

In three to five years, the Southeast Asian Market hopes to make the area, tucked away in the back of the park, by I-95, their permanent home.