Eight more Cambodians repatriated from the U.S. touched down in Phnom Penh on Wednesday, some of whom will be standing on Cambodian soil for the first time in their lives and have no known family in the country.
They have been dropped into a nation vastly different from the one they have left behind for good. Among the eight is a new father, separated from his wife and newborn son.
The group are the third lot to be deported this year from the U.S. under a 2002 agreement that the government says it wishes to renegotiate and amend for humanitarian reasons.
U.S. Embassy spokesman Jay Raman confirmed the arrival of the eight Cambodian citizens in an email.
Among the eight men—non-U.S. citizens who were eligible for deportation as a result of felony convictions—seven are currently being sponsored by the Returnee Integration Support Center (RISC), an NGO that helps deported Cambodians adapt to living in a nation to which many have never been, said Bill Herod, an adviser to RISC.
“They go through many stages, stages of grief. Many of them have left wives and children and parents. So they grieve for those lost relationships for a long time,” Mr. Herod said.
Of the new arrivals, “it is unusual to have this many in one group without family” to support them upon arrival, said Mr. Herod, who has worked with deportees since 2002.
Last week, Prime Minister Hun Sen urged the U.S. to revise the nations’ repatriation agreement and allow Cambodians who had already served prison sentences in the U.S. to stay with their families.
“When they send back the [former] prisoners to Cambodia, the wives and children continue living in the United States,” he said. “This is a sad separation.”
The government had finished drafting an amended agreement and would soon propose it to the U.S., a Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman said last week. Interior and Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesmen could not be reached on Wednesday.
More than 500 Cambodians have been deported from the U.S. under the agreement since 2002, including 13 people earlier this year.
RISC will provide temporary housing for the latest arrivals without identified relatives, help them find jobs and teach them about local customs, Mr. Herod said. The organization was also supporting two Cambodians from a group of eight who were deported last month, he said.
For deportees, many of whom were born in Thai refugee camps and immigrated to the U.S. as children fleeing war with their families, Mr. Herod said it takes time to land on their feet.
“They have to figure out where they are and how to function,” he said. “It’s not unusual for guys to be stuck in limbo for two or three months.”
Often they ask whether it’s safe to drink tap water, how to bargain in the market and why police patrolling Phnom Penh streets carry large, automatic weapons, he said.
Steve Peppin, who has been friends for 20 years with Soeun Chheng, one of the eight deported this week and whose wife Allison gave birth last week, is having to make his own adjustment after losing his friend.
“I’m heartbroken,” Mr. Peppin said on Wednesday from the U.S. state of Minnesota. The two met in prison as teenagers, trained as barbers while incarcerated and worked together in Mr. Peppin’s barbershop since Mr. Chheng was released from prison in 2012 after serving more than 17 years over a fatal shooting.
“I still remember the days and nights talking about our plans to work together in a barbershop and grow old together doing positive things. Being good men that stood for something,” he said.
“Words can’t describe the pain I have.”
Luka Meas, who was deported in 2011, said last month that when he returned to Cambodia after living in the U.S. for three decades, he worried about his health and what he was going to eat.
“I was thinking and saying to myself, I don’t think I’m going to be able to survive here,” Mr. Meas said.
Today, he has a wife and son in Cambodia, works as a tuk-tuk driver in Phnom Penh and has adjusted to living in the nation he fled as a boy—although he still doesn’t consider Cambodia home.
“This is the place I was born,” he said, “but all my life I grew up in the States.”
© 2017, Matt Surrusco. All rights reserved.