Suicide Prompts Reflection Among ‘Returnees’

Chan Var, 34, who was deported from the US last year, put an end to his uneasy life on Thursday afternoon. He tied his front door shut and left a note, in English, for his mother who lives in the US, and then hung himself with a sheet in his bedroom.

Deported from the US on Dec 14, 2006, under a controversial US policy of deporting criminals who are not US citizens, Chan Var had worked for 11 months at Korsang, an organization working on HIV and drug outreach.

Friends and neighbors said Chan Var, like many of the so-call­ed “returnees,” remained ill at ease in Cambodia, no longer American but not quite Khmer.

Tan Sonec, program manager of the Returnee Integration Sup­port Program, said that Chan Var had a history of depression and anxiety and had stopped taking Paxil, the anti-depressant he had been prescribed.

Since 2002, when Cambodia agreed to accept returnees from the US, 170 have been returned to Cambodia, according to the US Embassy.

Many returnees left Cambodia as young children and entered the US as refugees. Because they never officially became US citizens they are eligible for deportation if they commit crimes. Some of those deported have weathered the shock of reintegration in Cam­bodia better than others.

“They have been taken away from all they know, all they be­lieved. They’ve been betrayed,” Tan Sonec said of the US’ deportation policy.

Depression has been a factor in at least two other deaths in the returnee community, Tan Sonec added.

People who work with return­ees say part of the problem is Cam­bodia’s poor mental health infrastructure.

“Cambodia has about 20 psychiatrists working with 13 million people,” Tan Sonec said.

Chan Var, who Tan Sonec said once ran with the Filipino Hillside gang in Los Angeles, ended his life above a massage parlor in Phnom Penh’s Chamkar Mon district. He had been using drugs and in the weeks leading up to his death complained that his mother had stopp­ed sending him money and that he couldn’t talk with his son in the US.

Neighbors described Chan Var as friendly, but with a destructive streak.

“He used to destroy all his property, his fan, his television,” neighbor Ouk Lyhau said.

“The next day I’d ask, ‘Why are you doing this?…. He used to say, ‘I forget. I didn’t know what I was thinking,’” he said.

US Embassy spokesman Jeff Daigle said in an e-mail Tuesday that Chan Var’s return to Cambo­dia was carried out in accordance with US immigration law, which mandates the removal from the US of aliens who have been convicted of “aggravated felonies.”

“We learned with regret of Mr Chan Var’s death, and our condolences go out to his family,” he wrote.


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