Since 2002, more than 530 deportees have been sent from America to Cambodia. With a fight underway to see the law changed, editor Marissa Carruthers speaks to some of those who have been exiled from the place they call home. Photography by Lucas Veuve.
Raw emotion is etched on Sophea Phea’s face as she shares her moving story. While it wouldn’t seem out of place in a Hollywood blockbuster, this isn’t fiction. This is her life, and, so far, there has been no happy ending for her.
As one of more than 530 men and women deported from the US to Cambodia after committing an offence, Cambodian-American Sophea is helping lead an ambitious fight for justice. “These deportations are the inhumane separation of families,” says the mum-of-one. “Cambodia is not where we belong.”
While each story is different, many parallels can be drawn. Sophea, 34, was born in a Thai refugee camp after her family escaped the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge. At 18 months old, Sophea was sent to America with her family as refugees.
In 2006, she was dealt a two-year prison sentence for credit card fraud, serving 12 months. After transforming her life, four years later she was torn away from her family when she was deported to Cambodia – a country confined to the stories she was told growing up of a faraway land.
“With culture and language, I’m totally American,” she says. “America was all I knew. It’s my home. My family is there. I went to school there. I grew up there. I’d never been to Cambodia before in my life. I thought I was free. I’d done my time; I’d rehabilitated.”
With the clothes on her back and $150 in her pocket, in November 2011, Sophea stepped foot on Cambodian soil for the first time.
“I thought, ‘How am I going to survive here? I don’t know anybody,’,” she recalls. “I was terrified. I was away from my family for the first time. When will I see them again? How will I find a job? What is my skillset in Cambodia? I was so confused and scared.”
Now Sophea and a group of other deportees are fighting for their freedom after forming 1Love Cambodia, an offshoot of the 1Love Movement launched in Philadelphia in 2010.
“This is a violation of human rights,” she says. “America took us in as refugees then wants to kick us out because we did something wrong. We grew up in America, in that society, in those communities. Most of us grew up in bad neighbourhoods and fell into bad ways. We grew up having to survive, and now we are paying the ultimate price.”
The American Dream
During and in the wake of the Khmer Rouge regime, hundreds of thousands of Cambodians escaping the horror fled to refugee camps that dotted the Thai border.
In the 1980s, the US started accepting refugees, with more than 178,000 taken in, according to figures from the Returnee Integration Support Centre, an NGO that supports deportees when they land in the Kingdom of Wonder.
While trying to cope with the trauma of the genocide they had survived, these families were also forced to deal with culture shock and settling into a new life in a foreign land, often in underprivileged neighbourhoods.
“We had nothing when we first got to America,” recalls Chally Dang, who lived in Philadelphia from 18 months old until he was deported in 2011. “We lived in the ghetto surrounded by cockroaches and rats. My brother had to make contraptions to catch pigeons so we’d have something to eat.”
Despite being granted legal permanent residence in America, refugees were not automatically handed citizenship. In the 1990s, the US government shook up the law so any non-US citizen that commits an offence, including a series of minor misdemeanours, is automatically deported after serving their sentence.
The law was passed in 1996 and the American government started signing repatriation agreements with countries across the globe. The US-Cambodian Joint Commission on Repatriation was signed in 2002.
Deportations started immediately, with all returnees exiled from their homeland for life.
“I always thought I was a citizen,” says Khan Hin, 32, who lived in America since the age of one and was deported almost three years ago – eight years after serving a 13-month sentence for car theft.
“I had no clue until ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] interviewed me. It came as a total shock. I can’t explain the feeling. I didn’t know anything about Cambodia at all; it was totally devastating.”
“I served more time with immigration than I did in county jail,” says La Meas*, who was sentenced to 12 months at the age of 23 for possession of a firearm.
After serving half his time, on his release date the 34-year-old was detained by ICE. He spent the next seven months being transported from state to state as immigration officials tried to locate the travel documents needed to complete the deportation process.
After failing to find them, La was released. “I changed my life quickly,” he says. “I got a good job, went back to college, paid my taxes. I did everything a productive citizen should. I was doing really good.”
In March 2010, he received a phone call at work asking him to come into immigration to update his details. “I knew there was something wrong because we have to check in every month and I was there two weeks before,” he says. “I went and was told to take off my watch, belt and shoelaces because I’m being sent to Cambodia. My heart dropped. I was having flashbacks about my childhood, my family; about growing up. I started thinking about my future. What am I going to do in Cambodia? I don’t have any family there; all my family are here.”
Once again, La found himself locked up as he waited for his fate to be determined. It was another four months of imprisonment, during which time his sister and cousin tragically committed suicide, before he was deported to Cambodia in November 2010.
Similar tales of years spent rehabilitating lives after being released from prison and then months of incarceration before being deported are common.
“It was double punishment,” says Chally, who spent seven years rebuilding his life between being released from prison in 2003 and being deported. Having spent the majority of his youth – from the age of 15 to 21 – behind bars, he was “yearning to live” when he was released. He met a woman, had five children, bought a house and got a job.
“I was doing everything I should,” he says. “There was always a little black cloud hanging over my head but I thought, ‘I’ve done my time, I’m a reformed man’. I gave the system the benefit of the doubt. I thought they’d see me as a changed person and think, ‘We won’t deport him’.”
Chally was wrong, and once ICE located his documents, the deportation process began. He spent 10 months in a detention centre before being sent to Cambodia in 2011. “They were the longest, worst 10 months of my life. I was locked up like I was back in jail. I kept asking myself, ‘why am I back inside?’.”
An Alien Home
Culture shock, depression, isolation, anger, confusion, grief. These are a handful of the rollercoaster ride of emotions many deportees face when landing in Cambodia. Struggling to understand their situation and having to find their feet in a foreign country can be overwhelming for many.
“I didn’t know the first thing about living in Cambodia,” says Sophea, who spent her first five months in the province with distant relatives. “I was going crazy in the province and wanted to cry every day. It’s a big shock coming from the States to countryside living. I didn’t know what to do workwise. I couldn’t speak a lot of Khmer, or read or write. I got depressed a lot.”
When Sophea moved to Phnom Penh, life started picking up but she still faced a daily struggle to secure employment, and when she did, was often under-valued receiving menial wages.
“There was no motivation there,” she recalls. “I know you have to start somewhere but I was really struggling. People judged me and my mistakes haunted me.”
Identity crisis is another common issue, with Cambodian-Americans having to work hard to be accepted by the locals.
“I try to do whatever I can so they accept me but they don’t because I don’t look Cambodian to them,” says La. “I’m tall, I speak Khmer like a foreigner, I dress different. In America, I’m considered Khmer. Here, in the eyes of a Cambodian, I’m American. Finding my identity was hard. Who am I? Why am I here? I’m not accepted from both sides.”
Bobby Orn, 42, who was sent to Cambodia in March 2011, agrees that adapting was his biggest challenge. “My Khmer wasn’t fluent. Everybody would laugh at me,” he says. Bobby landed in Cambodia after a two year stretch in prison for a string of drug offences and blue collar crime, followed by two year’s detention with ICE. “Life was hell when I first got here,” he says.
However, being away from family is the biggest hurdle for most.
For Sophea, whose mother died in America last year, the breakdown in her relationship with her 13-year-old son is the most heart-breaking.
“As he’s got older, I feel he is resenting me for not being there physically. Now he’s almost 14 and I’ve been here for five years. I feel our relationship is fractured. He’s turning into a teenage boy and I can’t be there for him. It’s hard.”
Last summer, Sophea launched a Crowdfunding campaign, raising the money to fly her son to Cambodia for the first time.
“I was really happy to be able to hold him again but we were confused. He doesn’t know how to call me Mum. I don’t feel I have a right to punish him because I haven’t been there. Sometimes it felt awkward, but I have to be patient.”
Chally says he will always struggle during special occasions, such as birthdays and holidays. “I isolate myself. I go into an emotional dark corner and cry. For me, home is Philadelphia. Cambodia will never be home because home is where my family is and my children are.”
Despite the hurdles, once a sense of acceptance has sunk in, many deportees have tried to put a positive spin on
Many volunteer in local communities or have opened businesses and NGOs. “I believe the purpose for us to come back is to give back to Cambodian people, and that’s what we do,” says La.
Others, such as Bobby, have started new families. After spending six months locked inside every night by a worried relative, Bobby fell in love with his Khmer neighbour. They wed six months later and have started a new family.
Providing support for each other has also become a vital role, and was where the seed was planted for the launch of 1Love Cambodia in 2015.
“We started to organise meetings to encourage people not to lose hope,” says Sophea. “A lot of us fall into depression and we need support. We need to remind them the world doesn’t end here. I took this as an opportunity to start over and be free. Let’s start off clean, let’s see what skills we have to give back.”
Now 1Love Cambodia is working with the movement in Philadelphia to try and overturn the law. To date it has held several meetings with the Cambodian government, urging them to renegotiate the repatriation agreement between the two countries.
Ministry of Interior spokesman General Khieu Sopheak said the agreement “should be on the table for re-discussion or renegotiation”. He added a proposal is being drafted before being presented to the US.
The US Embassy confirmed it is in talks with the Cambodian government but remained firm on its stance.
Spokesman Jay Raman said: “The US believes that each country has an obligation under international law to accept the return of its nationals who are not eligible to remain in the US or any other country. The Cambodian government informed the US Embassy of its desire to renegotiate certain aspects of the Memorandum of Understanding that governs our joint repatriation programme. We continue to work with the Royal Government of Cambodia on repatriations of its citizens.”
With new US president Donald Trump tightening up immigration laws and the news revealed that America is gearing up to send a further 36 deportees to Cambodia in the coming months, a tough battle lies ahead for 1Love Cambodia. But Dang, for one, refuses to be deterred.
“If this fight isn’t for me, it’s for my community back in America,” says Dang. “I don’t want to see the next man or woman going through what we’re going through right now.”
*name has been changed