Strangers in their own land: the Cambodians deported from US and how they are making a home from home

When the US accepted refugees from Cambodia in the 1970s, it didn’t give them citizenship. After 1996, if they committed an offence they could be deported. We talk to some of those sent back to a place they’d never known

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 April, 2017, 6:45am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 April, 2017, 6:45am

Ry Mam flashes a smile and passes two beers across the bar. Upbeat Cambodian music blares from speakers hooked up to a screen tuned to YouTube, while a mix of locals and expats spill out onto the street, playing games to welcome in the Khmer New Year.

“It’s the last day before everything closes for New Year,” he say, welcoming a stream of regulars through the door of Ry’s Kitchen. “I wanted to do something special for the community.”

It is in the laid-back Cambodian city of Battambang that the 41-year-old has built a life for himself, one far removed from the one he had in the United States, which he called home for 32 years.

As one of more than 540 men and women deported from the US to Cambodia after committing an offence – including minor misdemeanours – 6½ years ago, Ry Mam was torn from the life he knew, sent to the kingdom and told he could never return.

Born in Cambodia, Ry Mam fled the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime, which ruled from 1975 to 1979, with his family. They settled in a refugee camp on the Thai border and, just before his second birthday, he was sent to the US, where he eventually settled in California with his family.

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Growing up in a tough neighbourhood riddled with racial tensions, as a youth Ry Mam joined a gang. He soon started racking up felonies, serving three separate jail terms for drug offences, possession of a firearm and other aggravated charges.

Upon release in 2005, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers visited Ry Mam, warning him he faced deportation to Cambodia.

Five years passed, however, and Ry Mam rebuilt his life, worked two jobs, paid taxes and enjoyed time with his family. Then, in 2010, he received the call from ICE he had been dreading. He spent two months in a detention centre before being deported.

“I had no memories of Cambodia,” he says. “I didn’t know jack. I was like, ‘What the hell?’ It was almost a joke. All my family were back in America. I spoke a little Khmer, I didn’t know anyone, I didn’t know anything.”

Between 1975 and 1979 an estimated 1.7 million people – 21 per cent of the population – died under the Khmer Rouge. Escaping starvation and atrocities, hundreds of thousands of Cambodians fled and ended up in refugee camps in Thailand.

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In the 1980s, the US started accepting refugees, with more than 178,000 taken in, according to the Returnee Integration Support Centre, an NGO that supports deportees when they land in Cambodia.

Many families were relocated to underprivileged neighbourhoods, where race and turf wars were rife. Families had to deal with the trauma they had escaped, while settling into a foreign land and coping with culture shock. All too often, younger generations fell into lives of crime.

Refugees were granted legal permanent residence in the US but not automatically given citizenship. In the 1990s, the US drafted a law stating that non-citizens who commit an offence will be deported after serving their sentence. This was passed in 1996 and agreements were negotiated with countries across the globe to accept deportees.

In 2002, the US-Cambodian Joint Commission on Repatriation was signed and deportations started immediately. Under the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), all returnees are exiled from the US for life.

To date, more than 540 people have been extradited. The latest five – including four of the so-called Minnesota Eight, who made global headlines after high-profile campaigns to halt their deportation – landed in March. They are the first to be repatriated since last September.

“These deportations are the inhumane separation of families,” says Sophea Phea, an organiser of 1Love Cambodia, a movement fighting to reunite families. “It is a violation of our human rights. America took us in as refugees. We grew up in that society, in those communities. We grew up having to survive and now we’re paying the ultimate price.”

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Phea was born in a refugee camp in Thailand. Having never set foot on Cambodian soil, at 18 months old she moved with her family to the US, where they settled in Long Beach, California. In 2006, she was given a two-year prison sentence for credit card fraud, serving half the time.

She was released and spent four years rehabilitating, returning to college, finding a job and taking care of her son, who is now 13. In 2011, ICE came knocking on Phea’s door. She spent a month in a detention centre before being sent to Cambodia with just US$150 in her pocket and the clothes on her back.

“With culture and language, I’m totally American,” she says. “America was all I knew. It’s my home. My family are there, I went to school there, I grew up in America. I’d never been to Cambodia until I arrived in 2011. I had no idea what to do.”

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Phea’s first few years were an uphill struggle. Like many other returnees, the 34-year-old sank into depression as she struggled far away from her son and large family. Unable to speak fluent Khmer, the language barrier was a daily challenge and securing work was tough. And the question of identity was raised daily as locals rejected her, just as the US had.

“I speak Khmer like a foreigner. I dress like a foreigner. To them, I am a foreigner,” she says.

Despite these hurdles, hard work and determination have helped her embrace her new life. Like Ry Mam, who seized the opportunity to build his own business, starting by selling Cuban sandwiches from a street cart, many returnees have created social enterprises and organisations that give back to the community, as well as business and training opportunities for locals.

The US is always talking about human rights and democracy, and pointing the finger at every other country except itself. It needs to look in the mirror
Kalvin Heng

“It is unfortunate that we were torn from our families, but we have to turn this into an opportunity to help the community and build ourselves,” says Phea. “Some of us used our experiences from the streets of the US to help Khmer youth steer away from gangs and drugs through hip hop, and there are people providing different types of services in the Cambodian market. These are the people helping to inspire others not to give up. It’s not the end of the world.”

A year ago, Ry Mam upgraded his street cart to the Street 1.5 lounge bar and restaurant. Upstairs is a small children’s library, full of donated books – a rarity for many of Battambang’s impoverished youngsters.

“Cambodia has given me more opportunities than back home,” he says. “I don’t know what I’d be doing if I was in America. It has been a challenge and it was hard for the first few years, but now this is home.”

Despite carving new lives for themselves, for some returnees the fight for freedom and the future fate of those detained in the US is strong.

In 2015, 1Love Cambodia formed as an offshoot of the Philadelphia-based 1Love Movement, which has been opposing the deportations since 2010. The group has been lobbying the Cambodian government to revise the MoU.

For example, the repatriation agreement between the US and Vietnam states that Vietnam will not accept any Vietnamese citizens who entered America before July 12, 1995.

“Cambodia and the US has never met to review the MoU since the signing to see if there were things working out or it needed to be amended,” says 1Love Cambodia organiser Kalvin Heng, who was sentenced to a year in prison in 1999 and held in custody for two years before being deported a year later, in 2004.

“People have been released and are back in society living normal lives, raising families, owning homes, and some even becoming grandparents [in the US]. It doesn’t make any sense to have this deportation order hanging over someone’s head when they have reformed and are productive members of society.”

1Love Cambodia has held several meetings with Cambodian ministers, who have agreed to look into the issue. Ministry of Interior spokesman General Khieu Sopheak has said the “agreement should be on the table for rediscussion or renegotiation”. He added a proposal is being drafted before being presented to the US embassy.

US embassy spokesman Jay Raman says talks are under way but the legality of the MoU stands. “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.”

However, with US President Donald Trump tightening up immigration laws and relations between the US and Cambodian governments seemingly tense, a tough battle lies ahead.

“The US is always talking about human rights and democracy, and pointing the finger at every other country except itself,” says Heng. “It needs to look in the mirror and see the pain and suffering it is causing throughout the world with its failed national and foreign policies that create a domino effect, while violating international human rights on all levels, especially with deporting people and separating families.”