Cambodians Deported From the US Build New Lives on Fragile Foundations

When Boomer left his home in Stockton, California, he brought his anger with him. Deported from the US in handcuffs, he arrived in Cambodia a free man in February 2003. Taken in by his father’s family, rice farmers in rural Takeo province, he found he had nothing to do but unpack his rage, spin it into rhymes and look for a place to record it, in English-language raps that decry the plight of both Cambodia’s refugee community in the US and the wave of Cambodians convicted of crimes in the US and sent back to their home country.

Boomer, 24, whose given name is Bunreas Pin, has changed in the years since he’s returned to Cambodia. He’s not angry anymore—instead, he’s hopeful, ambitious and proud.

But when he first arrived, things were different, he said. “You’re thinking, ‘Why the hell’d I get myself into this mess in the first place.’ You’re missing your mom. You’re missing everybody. So you’re in the stage where you need to find enlightenment. You know how Buddha sat underneath that fig tree and found enlightenment in 12 days or something? I think I did the same thing. I found my enlightenment.”

Now, Boomer is a co-founder of Straight Refugeez, a project meant to transform hip-hop into a positive and mainstream force in Cambodia. Working out of Babel Studios in Phnom Penh, he’s completing his first CD and has big plans for the future: Movies, music videos, a music label featuring CTN celebrity DJ Sdey, a hip-hop school for local children.

“I feel like I’m needed here in Cambodia right now,” Boomer said. “I could probably help develop the country. That’s probably the reason I was sent back, to do that. You never know.”

Boomer is one of 128 men and one woman, ages 23 to 83, who have been returned from the US to Cambodia since the two countries signed a deportation agreement in March 2002. The approximately 1,400 Cambodians potentially in line for deportation all entered the US as refugees, many more than 20 years ago, but never attained US citizenship. They served sentences for felonies including gang violence, drug offenses and possession of illegal weapons, according to returnees.

Many returnees have now been in Cambodia for two or three years. Like Boomer, many have landed jobs, gotten married and found ways to continue their lives. Others, says Returnee Assistance Project coordinator Bill Herod, struggle to earn enough money to survive and to stay ahead of alcohol and drug problems. Four are currently serving prison sentences in Cambodia.

Pom Sokthea, 33, known by those at RAP as Spooks, returned to Cambodia in 2002. He grew up with his family in California, and spent about one-third of his life behind bars: First in juvenile detention, then in prison for two subsequent terms and, finally, at the US Immigration and Naturalization Service, before being sent to Cambodia.

Now, he wears a paint-spattered baseball cap and long sleeves that cover his many tattoos. He speaks accented English—it is not his first language, and, like many returnees, he spent too much time in prison to obtain a high school-level education. He earns $3 per day doing maintenance work, plumbing and painting at RAP, which is housed in the KIDS guesthouse in Phnom Penh.

“I’ve been locked up almost my whole life in the States so I never got a chance to get educated. Now I’m trying to go back to school,” said Pom Sokthea, who dreams of becoming an elementary school teacher. “I’m going to try to become somebody; I’m not going to do painting and plumbing my whole life. But, one step at a time. I’m trying to go to English class, and try to become something.“

But right now, he said, it’s a daily struggle to make ends meet. His salary just covers his rent, he said, and his wife sews piecework to pay for food for them, and their young son. Even so, he says he has turned his life around.

“I came to Cambodia, and about a month later I found a wife. I got married,” he said. “My past is just like [I was] a kid, that’s why I did a lot of stuff without thinking. I’m like an old man now, I’m a responsible person.”

Pom Sokthea is one of the returnees who said he benefited from the services at RAP, a program that works with more than half of the returnee population, said Tan Sonec, 33, a returnee and RAP’s program officer and deputy coordinator. The program, which offers orientation, training, employment and mental health referrals and temporary housing, sprung up in June 2002 when the first returnees arrived in Cambodia. Since then, Tan Sonec said, it has helped find job placements for about 50 of the returnees—as mechanics, in the hotel industry and as teachers, though lack of education and illiteracy in Khmer are often limiting factors.

Implementing the program, said Herod, presented unusual challenges: A prisoner’s return to society is always difficult, and the problem is compounded by the returnees’ arrival in an alien country.

“Virtually none of them have any connection with contemporary Cambodia,” he said. “They don’t know anything about history or politics. On the King’s birthday, a couple of years ago, one of the guys asked what the holiday was, and I told him. He said, ‘Oh, there’s a King?’”

Herod said returnees deal with depression and anger, and many face a rocky period when they first arrive in Cambodia. Some develop drug and alcohol abuse problems others get into brawls and motorbike accidents. He estimates one-third of the returnees are facing such difficulties at present, while about one-third seem to be settled into their new lives.

But RAP itself has also been the center of controversy in recent weeks, facing problems that Herod said spring mainly from growing pains and lack of infrastructure. The program began in an impromptu fashion and has grown steadily as new groups of returnees come in, with the newest group expected in August, he said.

Herod said he started the program because no NGOs were willing or able to take it on. He began with some small grants and borrowed rooms in a friend’s guesthouse, later receiving more funding first from the US Embassy and then from the US Agency for International Development, which currently funds RAP, administering the funds through the NGO Center for Social Development.

USAID recently commissioned a review of RAP, and the resulting report made waves when it suggested RAP had problems with financial accountability and used alcohol “as a sedative for returnees with mental health issues,” according to a RAP statement that denied the allegations. Herod said the true problems in the program were a lack of professional staff and resources—he noted, for example, that his drug detoxification facility currently consists merely of a private room with a television. He added that RAP and USAID are in the process of seeking a new administrative partner to replace CSD, which will no longer be involved in the program as of the end of September.

Chea Vannath, president of CSD, described her organization’s withdrawal as a matter of logistics. “We have so many programs, our plate is already too full to accommodate the Returnee Assistance Project. After the assessment of the evaluators, we felt RAP will be in better hands with another organization, for the sake of both RAP and our organization,” she said, adding that CSD is only a fiscal agent and was not highly involved with RAP, though USAID had recently required CSD to take stronger managerial control of the program.

USAID put out a request last week for proposals to administer the program, with specifications that would increase the returnee assistance budget from $150,000 per year to $800,000 over the next three years.

US Embassy spokesman David Gainer could not comment on whether that budget would likely be used to further develop RAP or to create an entirely new organization for returnees, though the printed request for applications refers to the project as Returnee Reintegration and Support Project, or RRASP, rather than as RAP.

“The needs of the Cambodian returnees are more challenging than we initially envisioned,” Gainer said. “This request [for proposals] does not signal a lack of confidence in the Center for Social Development for the implementation of the Returnee Assistance Project, but rather a realization of the longer term requirements of the project.”

As for the assessment, Herod noted that the review team did not “know anything about Cambodia and some of their suggestions were not appropriate.”

“The review team was doing an assessment of RAP as if we were a multidisciplinary social service agency, and criticizing us for not being a very good one,” he said. “Well, we’re just a couple of people who are trying to help, with limited resources. It’s like NASA coming to Phnom Penh and looking at a cyclo and saying, ‘This isn’t a very good lunar lander.’ Well, you know, nobody said it was.”

But for Penn Mean, 29, RAP is the only lifeline being extended to him. They call him Seattle, after his hometown in the US, where his mother, grandmother and 8-year-old son still live. “I got no family at all [in Cambodia],” he said. “I’m by myself.”

Penn Mean describes his grasp of Khmer as “not that good,” though he is now married to a Cambodian woman who tries to teach him. Through RAP, he landed a job at Hotel InterContinental, he said, but quit after a week of cleaning toilets. Now, he works as a receptionist at RAP, and said, Herod “is like a father to me. He helped me out a lot.”

Now, Mean Penn has another young son, and says things are looking up. “I’m happy they deported me,” he said, “because if I was back in the States, I’d still be on parole and stuff. I’d still be in and out of jail. But they deported me, and it’s a whole new life for me over here.”

Still, he said, there is a social stigma attached to deportation, and it threatens his status in the community, “Where I stay at, they know that I’m from the States. They keep asking me, ‘When you going back?’ I don’t want to tell them that I’m deported. They’ll think, ‘This guy’s bad—he got deported.”

For Boomer, entirely assimilating into society is not a possibility, he said. “I could never be adjusted to Cambodia. Adapted, yes, I’m adapting pretty fast, but adjusted, no. The society won’t let me adjust. I can’t just be a normal Cambodian. They always want to look at me as Cambodian-American…. When they see us, they always have to add that word into it.”

Though he says he feels Cambodian, he adds that, to him, “the culture is hella weird.” He grew up in a gang culture, looking up to his two older brothers, members of a West Coast US gang called Asian Boys. One of his brothers is now serving out a life prison sentence. The do-rags, tattoos, baggy pants and basketball shoes that were hip back home, here would mark him as trouble; he saves them for nights out, wearing less ostentatious clothes to work.

But though he is married and is building a new community of friends, family and colleagues, he says he can’t turn his back on what he left behind. “I can’t stay away from the returnees; I need to be in that community, I need to be in the same culture as somebody,” he said, adding that there are certain bars, such as Sweet Home on Street 51, and even a neighborhood, where returnees congregate on weekends, dressed in their best hip-hop gear.

Otherwise, he said, “I miss the culture, I miss the lifestyle, I miss hanging out, I miss giving the proper handshake. I miss the culture…. On work days, you just want to think about work. Once I’m over here, I’m on another level. Once I’m over there [with the returnees] I’m back in the States.”

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