An eclectic mix of artists, NGO workers, former gang members and Cambodian royalty filled Java Café to capacity on Monday night for a dinner and awards ceremony aimed at raising awareness about the US government’s ongoing deportation of Cambodian refugees.
Princess Soma Norodom, the niece of King Norodom Sihoni, was the night’s host.
Norodom, who grew up in Long Beach, California, after her family fled to the US following the Khmer Rouge takeover, expressed her solidarity with those deported from the US.
“I’m here because I am Cambodian-American. I know what it was like to be a refugee in the US,” said the Princess when asked why she felt compelled to speak on the issue.
The majority of deportees arriving in Cambodia committed crimes in the past, often in their teens, which deemed them deportable, according to the local non-profit Returnee Integration Support Center.
“People have to understand that when we were there, we were kids,” said Soma Norodom. “You go through this period of isolation, you go through an identity crisis, so you get into gangs, you drink, you do drugs ... That is how some of [the returnees] got into trouble.”
The “Champions of Change, too” gala, billed as a black tie affair, was organized by Phnom Penh-based multimedia collaborative Studio Revolt to counter a “Champions of Change” dinner taking place at the White House later this week.
Studio Revolt’s video My Asian Americana, which tells the story of Cambodian returnees or “Exiled Americans” and criticizes US deportation policies, was chosen as a finalist in a contest organised by the White House’s Asian American and Pacific Islander Initiative.
However, it was excluded from the final winners’ list last month despite having garnered the most votes from online viewers, according to the filmmakers, who say the exclusion is a reflection of the Obama Administration’s avoidance of the issue.
White House officials did not respond to requests for comment on the contest.
Dinner was followed by an awards ceremony honouring My Asian Americana’s cast and crew, and by testimonies from returnees themselves.
“It’s history repeating itself,” returnee Sokha Chhim told the crowd, “Our parents got sent to a country they never knew and had to start their lives there, and we’re getting sent back to a country we never knew, and have to start our lives here.”
Despite the heavy political tone, the event was intimate and festive and included performances by Sokha Chhim, who is well known in Phnom Penh’s hip-hop scene as DJ Dolla, and spoken word poet Khosal Kiev, also a returnee.
“You can feel the creativity in the air,” said Anida Yoeu Ali, My Asian Americana’s director, who took advantage of the opportunity to announce a new artistic endeavour for the coming year entitled “Generation Return”, which will feature work by artists belonging to the Cambodian diaspora.
In attendance were about 30 returnees, as well as various members of Phnom Penh’s arts community, including representatives of Meta House, Romeet Gallery and Khmer Arts.
Princess Soma Norodom’s cousins, Nikko and Bijou Sisowath, were also present.
“Tonight we honoured My Asian Americana because the White House did not honour it even though it won the public vote,” said Soma Norodom. “We have to voice our opinion. The issue of deportations is a very big issue.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Diana Montaño at [email protected]