Recently, many Khmer Americans have been deported from the US and sent to Cambodia. Despite their Khmer heritage, the deportees have been raised in the US, do not speak the Khmer language and only know of the American culture and its way of life.
Now they are living in Cambodia, in an unfamiliar country, with no financial assistance and surviving alone, without their families and loved ones. The harsh reality is that they can never go back to the place they once called home.
Many of the deportees did their time in prison for the crimes they committed and were deported because they were not US citizens. Their second punishment, deportation, is cruel and unjust. But we have witnessed the strength of Khmer people rebuilding their new lives as refugees in the US, France, Canada, Australia, etc.
They are faced with the same?? struggles their parents endured as refugees of having to adapt to a new life in an unknown country. But the difference is that the deportees can share their experiences with the young generations in Cambodia, and help in rebuilding the country.
Several of the deportees, like Kosal Khiev, the spoken-word poet, are starting to make an impact with their innovative ideas and artistic careers. Kosal will represent Cambodia as a Cultural Olympiad in the Poetry Parnassus event at the 2012 Summer Olympics. He was incarcerated for 15 years in the US and now is a popular performer in the Cambodian arts community.
Listening to his poetry can make a grown man cry, and some have.
Back in April, 2012, the Phnom Penh Arts Community, in collaboration with Khmer Exiled Americans, hosted an event honouring My Asian Americana, a deportation video created by Studio Revolt. The video looked at the intersection between the criminal justice system and immigration, and featured exiled Americans talking about being deported to a country they don’t know, and their fond memories about the US.
Last month, the Obama immigration law made some changes to the policy and about 800,000 young, illegal immigrants can remain in the United States, but under certain guidelines.
Acceptance in society is important in adapting to a new environment. Many refugees, including myself, had to work hard to earn the respect from our new country of residence. I was harassed as a refugee growing up in the US, and I started resenting being Cambodian.
Many of us lied for years about our true heritage. Some of the deportees turned to gangs, to feel accepted, and some made bad decisions, and later paid for it by serving time in jail. We were kids and, like most kids, we just wanted to fit in.
The painful memories of growing up as a refugee in a foreign country will never be forgotten. Taking these experiences and turning it into something positive, as well as spreading ideas and sharing knowledge, is what it takes to rebuild the country.
For the returnees, there will be times when they feel homesick and alone, but this is a natural feeling. Focus on your work and your passions in life, because you can make a difference here in Cambodia, and the first step was returning “home”.
The Social Agenda with Soma Norodom
The views expressed above are solely the author’s and do not reflect any positions taken by The Phnom Penh Post.