Something familiar: the weekly volleyball game between returnees (left) and Stung Meanchey locals.
wo well-built male teachers walk into a classroom full of chattering women on a
Friday morning in Phnom Penh. They sit comfortably beside their students, talking
to them in Khmer and explaining simple expressions in English.
One student needs to go to the bathroom, so teacher Kloeung Aun guides her gently
through the door and later escorts her back again and into her chair.
It is not your average classroom setting. The students are all blind; three are victims
of acid attacks. The teachers are Cambodians who have been deported from the US after
being convicted of crimes and serving their prison sentences.
For Kloeung Aun, 34, volunteering to teach English to blind women in Phnom Penh is
a far cry from his life nine months ago, when he was rebuilding air-conditioner compressors
in Texas. He left Cambodia for a refugee camp aged nine, and after 21 years in the
US returned with the first group of deportees last June.
"I feel sorry for them," he says of his new students. "When you lose
your eyesight you take away a lot. Even though they are in that position they still
want to learn; that is why I want to teach them.
And, he says proudly, they are fast learners.
"Sourh Pos and Srey Oun used to be pretty shy to speak, but they are not afraid
to speak now - we were telling them not to be shy of making mistakes," he says.
Aun and fellow teacher Im Song, who was sent back from Rhode Island in November,
are happy to fill a few hours a week sharing their English skills.
"We have free time so why not help people out? When we get ourselves sorted
out and get a job, hopefully someone else will step in and help," says Aun.
The two are among 46 men who have been sent back since the US and Cambodian governments
signed a memorandum of understanding in March last year. The agreement requires Cambodia
to accept those who have been convicted of a felony carrying a sentence of a year
or more, and who have not become US citizens.
Up to 1,400 Cambodians qualify to be permanently deported under the scheme, and
currently around ten are being deported every month. All the returnees so far are
men, but three women are scheduled to arrive this year.
Bill Herod coordinates the Returnee Assistance Project, a network that helps provide
employment, training and accommodation to returnees. He says many of those facing
deportation do not speak Khmer and some have never lived in Cambodia, as they were
born in refugee camps. All entered the US legally as refugees and many have been
forced to leave behind their wives and children, unable to return.
"I just had an email from a guy who's about to be deported and he's only met
one Cambodian in his life," says Herod. "He was born in a refugee camp
and has no contact with Khmer culture. He's petrified."
Herod says it is very hard for the returnees to adjust successfully to their new
lives and a culture which is so foreign. The older men, including 80-year-old returnee
Nou Nim, are fitting in better, but the younger men experience many difficulties.
"They get here, don't have any idea how to function, they can't read or write,
they wouldn't have any idea how to live on the wage being offered; they are just
in shock," he says.
"The first week they arrived they came back and said 'Bill you wouldn't believe
it, I was driving down the road and a guy drove straight at me on the wrong side
and turned straight in front of me!'"
Returnee Aun helps out each week with English classes for blind women.
"You can't consider any other circumstances, [such as] family, children who
are American citizens, whether the person was convicted of a non-violent crime years
ago, whether it was gang-related violence when the person was a teen and they now
have steady job," he points out. "They still have to go back."
Others say the deportations constitute human rights violations. Chea Vannath, president
of the Center for Social Development, believes the practice goes against the USA's
commitments under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
"It is very unfair for those people having been brought to the US as refugees
and now being forced to return to Cambodia against their will," she says.
Her thoughts are shared by Thun Saray, executive director of human rights NGO ADHOC.
"This is a human rights violation. These people have lived in America from their
childhood, they don't speak Khmer, they did their time already, so why are they sent
back to Cambodia?" Saray asks.
However a US embassy official says that deportations are routine practice between
the US and many countries, and that Cambodia is no exception.
"It is not unique," she says. "What is unique is that until last March,
there was no agreement for the return of Cambodian felons.
"We are talking about convicted felons, some of whom have committed heinous
crimes. They have served their time, and under US law they are now eligible for deportation.
They are not US citizens, so that is how the US law works."
The Cambodian government has also been criticized for unduly detaining the returnees
"When [the returnees] come here sometimes their human rights are also violated
by our authorities, who keep them in custody and say they are trying to educate them
about their lives and how to integrate," explains Thun Saray. "But they
keep them too long."
Herod says the immigration authorities have generally handled the situation well,
but objects to detention periods of up to one month on arrival, claiming this has
no legal basis.
"During the time of detention there have been some forms of extortion,"
he explains. "All of the people I've talked to were asked to pay hundreds of
dollars to be released."
An immigration official, who did not want to be named, describes as groundless the
accusations of extortion. The detention period is necessary, he says, so officials
can contact the person's family members here and verify where the men will be living.
"And also the local authorities will be notified of their presence," he
says. "These people are ex-convicts so we need to keep track of them. We are
accountable for the security and public safety here and if anything goes wrong we
would be blamed."
80-year-old Nou Nim, the oldest returnee, gets a trim from Im Song.
The immigration official says the Cambodian government is unable to contribute any
money, but claims that during the negotiations on the deportations, the US State
Department promised to provide financial assistance.
"They say the assistance is coming, but the people at Capitol Hill are fully
occupied with Iraq so we are waiting," he says.
However the US embassy official says that "to the best of my knowledge no pledge
had been made," and that the agreement signed last March does not require the
US to provide funding.
Whatever the case, there is no official financial or reintegration support, and the
returnees depend on Herod's RAP project as their only source of help. Herod says
he became involved when he went to meet the first group of arrivals in June 2002
and quickly discovered there was a problem.
"We went to find out what the government's plan was - whether they were going
to a work camp or vocational training center and found out that there wasn't any
plan," he says.
Herod now works with the arrivals to find employment, set up volunteer work such
as the blind school, and provide them with free internet services, counseling and
food. He estimates that around one-third are employed, another third are looking
but can't find anything, and the rest are not yet looking for work.
In most cases, he says, it is not practical to rely on the returnees' families for
assistance as they are too poor. Besides, many do not have family here.
"In many cases the families are very poor and don't have enough money for food
or housing for the returnees. It would be a great imposition," he says. "Many
of the families don't speak English and wouldn't know how to help them find jobs."
Soy Bunnath, 27, is one such example. His entire family fled to California when he
was three so he has no family left here. Bunnath lives and works as volunteer manager
at the KIDS guest house in Phnom Penh, but says it is hard for most returnees to
"I think if you have support from the state or your family you can survive,
rent a house, get a motorbike," he says. "But if some people don't get
support from the state or family they cannot survive."
Bunnath is far from alone in regretting the actions that caused him to be imprisoned
and eventually returned.
"When I start flashing back to America I think - Damn, I am American, I grew
up in the States, so how come I'm here?" Bunnath says. "I've done stupid
things already so that is why I'm here. I so regret it."
Most of the deportees say they are trying hard to fit in and erase the mistakes of
the past by changing their ways. For Kloeung Aun, the weekly English classes with
blind women and acid attack victims have helped him to change and appreciate that
'life is precious'. He also quickly adopted a Khmer tradition that does not often
occur in America - a relative arranged for him to be married just five months after
Sporting a visor that says 'Michigan' and with a tattoo on his forearm proclaiming
'100 percent Khmer', Aun explains why he decided to tie the knot.
"I'm ready to settle down," he says. "I know myself. If I stay single
I might run into trouble in this country. It is easy to get into trouble, especially
if you go to bars and nightclubs. I'm changed. I left the old me behind, this is
the new me."