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California girl sentenced to life in Cambodia

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Three years after the first American returnees arrived at Pochentong airport, Veasna

Sany is still the only woman among the group of 129 criminals who have been forcibly

deported to their former homeland.

China's drug convictions in the United States earned her a one-way, economy-class ticket back to Cambodia.

And she's not impressed.

"It pretty much sucks that I'm going to have to be here for the rest of my life.

So I just try to take things one day at a time," says Sany, known to her friends

by her former gang nickname, "China".

Her attitude is common among returnees, according to Tin Sonec, who was also deported

from the US and became the deputy coordinator of the Phnom Penh-based Returnee Assistance

Program (RAP). He says most American returnees aren't pleased with their new homeland.

"They don't like the weather, the people or the traffic," Sonec says.

Many have no memory of the land they are now forced to adapt to and some barely speak

Khmer, but Sany faces an additional isolation.

"It's very hard and awkward for her, 'cause she's the only woman," says

LP, a returnee who was on the flight that brought Sany to Cambodia in March 2004.

"We knew there was one female returnee headed to Cambodia with us, but we couldn't

figure out who she was," he says. After they stopped in the Philippines and

the approximately 100 Filipino returnees disembarked, there was only one woman left

on the plane. "She was like 'Guys, I'm sorry, I was just so embarrassed.'"

When Sany arrived just over a year ago, Bill Herod, executive director of RAP, was

worried about the customary detention of returnees, which can last up to a month.

"We'd been talking to immigration officials for a while about what they were

going to do with the first woman returnee," Herod says. "We were concerned

that there were no facilities for detaining women at the airport, and thanks to the

kindness of the immigration officers, we got permission to bring her here right away."

But Sany didn't want to go.

When Herod appeared and told her she could come to his guesthouse, she told him she

preferred to stay with the friends she had made on the flight. An immigration official

had to convince her that the stranger was legitimate, and even then she only accompanied

Herod reluctantly.

Family business

Within days of arriving in Phnom Penh, Sany left for her birthplace of Battambang

and a reunion with a sister, 10 years her elder, of whom she had no memory.

Sany recognized her instantly.

"She looks exactly like my mom, and her voice is exactly like my mom's ... she's

just like a double image of my mom," Sany says.

Though tearful, their reunion lasted only a month and a half. Sany says she got into

a fight with her sister and brother-in-law over her reluctance to learn to read and

write Khmer, so she decided to return to Phnom Penh, where Herod helped her get set

up.

She now lives in a house on the outskirts of the city with her boyfriend. As she

explains her life in Cambodia from the bamboo garden in front of the guesthouse where

she spent her first night in Phnom Penh, she looks like a nervous American teenager.

She wears a pink hooded top, overall shorts with a matching pink bandanna tied around

her head. It's hard to imagine that the 29-year-old woman with the wide smiling face

spent seven years serving time at California' most notorious women's prison, Chowchilla.

Growing up

Sany was about 14 when her parents moved from Los Angeles to Long Beach, and that's

where she started getting into trouble, "selling drugs and running around with

gangs." Her first arrest came five years later. Sany is hazy on the details

- she says because she was smoking weed at the time - but she remembers that she

was charged with possession and sales of drugs, which earned her a three-year prison

sentence.

Her next sentence - for a parole violation - came soon after. In addition to another

year at Chowchilla, this time she also landed in an immigration detention facility

for a few months.

Just fourteen months after being released from the immigration detention facility,

police pulled Sany over for making a "California stop" - rolling slowly

through a stop sign. They found crack cocaine in her car, which Sany says she was

only selling, not using. Either way, this third felony earned her another three years

at Chowchilla and a lengthy stay at the immigration facility in Bakersfield, California.

"I stayed at immigration for a year and a few months," Sany says. She hated

the facility. "After a while, I was like, excuse my language, but I was like

f*#@, I wish they'd hurry up and deport me ... if they're going to deport me I wish

they'd just deport me now."

Coming home

On March 4, 2004, she got her wish.

Sany taught English for a while in Battambang and again part-time when she first

got back to Phnom Penh. She has also worked as a proofreader and in marketing, but

she is currently unemployed. The $250 monthly stipend her mother sends from the US

is enough for her to scrape by, but not enough for other things she wants do to,

such as finance a wedding or get a passport and travel.

She misses her family in the States, especially her 15-year-old son, who she talks

to once a week. She misses her American friends and worries that she will never fit

in as a Khmer woman.

"I guess I'll always feel like I'm an American," she admits with a sigh.

"It's kind of like I'm in exile here."

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