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Thrust into a new world

Kyle James, Phnom Penh
November 13, 2013

Since 2002, almost 400 people of Cambodian origin who grew up in the US have been deported to a country they knew little about. Some make the shift successfully, but for others, the feeling of displacement is permanent.

A welcome sign greets those arriving in Phnom Penh
Image: Kyle James

Sophorn, 38, struggles to make it up the stairs to the modest apartment she rents in Phnom Penh. Once inside, she sighs with relief as she sits down on the couch in front of a flat-screen TV in the sparsely furnished room. Sophorn developed rheumatoid arthritis several years ago, and since her condition forced her to quit her job, she spends most of her time watching TV or reading her Bible.

"If I were in the US, I could get proper medical care and I'd have my family help me out," she says. "It would be better for me."

But she can't be in the US; its government doesn't want her there. In 2004, Sophorn (not her real name) was deported under US immigration legislation that allows non-citizens, even long-term residents with green cards, to be deported if they have committed crimes. While Sophorn's family moved to the US in 1980 when she was five, she never took out citizenship. As a teenager, she ran away from home and started getting in trouble with the law. In fact, she spent much of the time between 1996 and 2004 in detention of some sort.

"I was kind of rebellious as a kid, and I did some stuff I shouldn't have done and that's how I ended up here," Sophorn says, refusing to go into detail. "It's quite a long story."

Portrait of Sophorn from the back as she watches TV in her flat
Sophorn misses the US - her home for 34 yearsImage: Kyle James

In March 2004, she was put on a plane in handcuffs, along with 10 Cambodian men, and dropped off at the Phnom Penh airport. She had little if any memory of the country, did not speak the language, and remembers being very nervous on arrival in a city very different than the Los Angeles she grew up in. But having no choice, she went about trying to make a life for herself as best she could. It hasn't been easy.

"I'm still not comfortable, even after almost ten years," she says. "The dust, the mosquitoes, the weather, it's just everything. I don't like nothing about Cambodia."

"But, you know, I'm here," she adds with resignation.

Immigrants rights groups have been critical of the US law, under which a total of more than 400,000 individuals were deported in 2012, the highest annual number ever. Separating individuals from family and friends and the world they know is unfair, they say. While the deportees have, admittedly, broken the law, they were not given the chance to start over once they got out of jail. Rather, they were simply sent away.

"I miss my whole family," Sophorn says, remembering that she was especially hard hit when her mother died last year. "I'm still feeling the pain and sadness I couldn't be there."

There are more mundane things she misses as well, especially American fast food.

"There's no McDonald's out here," she says.

Painful new start

In a traditional Cambodian café on a busy Phnom Penh street, hundreds of miles away from any Big Mac, Sakmaknak Ouch talks about how he ended up on a plane in August of this year, sitting between two immigration agents, who were escorting him back to a country he had never seen. Born in a Thai refugee camp to Cambodian parents in 1980, he came to the US when he was 16 months old, the family eventually settling in California.

Calf being slaughtered on the street in Phnom Penh
Slaughter on the streets: Many returnees struggle with culture shock when they arriveImage: Kyle James

"The place we moved to in San Fernando Valley was all Hispanic. So they looked at us different and called us names," he said. "We formed a gang out there, that way other races wouldn't pick on us."

But that gang involvement led to crime, and Sam, as he was known in the US, was picked up on drug charges when he was 18. The next decade saw him in and out of jail repeatedly, until he was served deportation papers.

Now he lives with his aunt and her family, and is waiting to get a Cambodian passport and ID so he can get a job. Until then, his days are largely filled with surfing the Internet and Facebook, communicating with friends back home. Some days are good; others less so.

"When I sit on the balcony and just think, I need a job, I can't find one right now because I don't got my ID," he says. "That's when I get depressed. I can't read a book because I can't focus because too much on my mind, like what am I gonna do?"

Like with his family, many of the Cambodian deportees are ones who came to the US in the early 80s after having fled the genocidal Khmer Rouge. Many of their parents had been traumatized and a lot of families ended up in rough neighborhoods. Some kids got involved in gangs and crime, landing in jail and eventually on a one-way trip out of the country.

Luckily for Sakmaknak and Sophorn, an organization in Phnom Penh was set up in 2002 to help make the transition easier. The Returnee Integration Support Center, or RISC, is an NGO that offers practical support such as food, housing, medicine, or even mental health services. RISC is getting Sakmaknak the legal papers he needs and to enroll in a course to be certified as an English teacher. It also offers orientations to new arrivals on how to adapt to their new home.

"The biggest problem is the culture shock," says Villa Kem, a RISC co-director and returnee himself. "It's very different than being in America. It's a third-world country and everything is new."

Making the transition, or not

Sakmaknak Ouch
Sakmaknak sees his return to Cambodia as a new startImage: Kyle James

While Sakmaknak seems a little shell-shocked about his situation, he's trying to see it in a positive light and to keep looking forward, not back. While he hates having left behind friends and family, he is proud to be rid of other parts of his American life.

"Moving here, I've got a clean record, no probation, no parole, and I get to vote," he says.

He sometimes spends time with other returnees, about half of whom he estimates have made the transition to Cambodian life. But he says a good percentage of them still hang on to old mentalities and continue to get in trouble with the law. And Cambodia is not a place where you want to be thrown in jail, he insists.

For Sophorn, the past decade has been hard. She was married to another returnee for a while here, but he's now serving a second term in jail in Phnom Penh, seemingly unable to come to terms with life here. So now she spends most of her time alone in her simple apartment, flipping through the TV channels, venturing out to go to church. She wishes she'd done things differently when she was younger, but also considers the US policy that brought her here almost a form of cruel and unusual punishment.

"OK, we broke the law, but so what? A lot of people break the law," she says. "Just because we're not citizens or we weren't born there doesn't make us bad people and we still need to be treated fairly. Deporting us and separating us from our family, that's not right either."

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