Inside one family’s fight to stop a loved one’s deportation

When we first interviewed Elizabeth Chan, she was standing in front of San Francisco’s immigration building, saying goodbye to her only son. She’s been fighting his deportation order ever since and told us how that fight has changed her.

Elizabeth tries not to think about Cambodia. When she does, she knows how to distract herself. She remembers the Buddha’s teachings and goes out of her way to see friends. “I try to forget,” she says. “When I do something happy, those memories go away.”

When Immigration and Customs Enforcement detained her son, “my memories came back—like in front of me, you know? I see everything now.”

Kouen “TJ” Hem is Elizabeth’s oldest surviving child. He’s a barrel-chested father of three who likes to surprise his mom with groceries. Elizabeth gave birth to him in a labor camp, at the height of the Khmer Rouge’s power. TJ’s older sisters died of starvation there, and the Khmer Rouge executed his father shortly after he was born. Elizabeth stole handfuls of rice for her children and tried to save them all.

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