When three Cambodian immigration officials came to meet him in May at a refugee detention centre in Pennsylvania, James, one of 30 recent deportees from the US, says they spoke highly of Cambodia.
He said they told him the Kingdom had changed a lot and was no longer the land from which his mother had to flee the horrors of genocide and war.
“When the Cambodian officials met us, they told us there is going to be an oil refinery here so a lot of businesses are going to hire people who speak English and Cambodian."
“They said I could also find a new family here – get settled and find a nice wife,” James says.
As positive as the Cambodian officials were about his intended new home, James feared he would never be able to see his mother again when he left the US.
“My mother’s memories are very tragic. She does not want to go back to Cambodia. She would never return here. Her memories of Cambodia are painful – of fleeing war – memories she tries never to think about,” he says.
James is one of 30 Cambodian deportees who landed in the Kingdom this month.
They bring to 727 the total number of such people to have returned since a memorandum of understanding was signed with the US in 2002.
The agreement allows the US to send back Cambodians who have been convicted of a felony but are not citizens of that country. Most arrived in the US as the children of refugees fleeing the Kingdom’s civil war and had never before set foot in Cambodia.
“My mother will never come back to Cambodia. I will never see her again if I stay here,” James says.
His mother became a US citizenwhen he was just six years old.
Another recent returnee, Dan was convicted on a felony charge of selling marijuana in 2001 when he was 19 years old. He spent three years in prison. He is now 37.
He was sponsored by relatives to live in the US when he was just a year old and leaves behind five children and a wife.
“I begged them to not deport me. I asked them that if they had to deport me, could they send me back in a few years so I could take care of my very sick 71-year-old mother in case she passed away? But they don’t care about our issues. We are nobody to them.”
Dan was sent to the detention centre in April.
James says he spent four months in detention. After about two months, they told him that his travel documents from Cambodia had arrived, and his heart broke.
“On leaving the airplane, I felt I didn’t belong to Cambodia. I felt really awkward. I didn’t want to leave the airport.
“It is hard for us being here without our families. Every time I wake up in the morning I ask God why they did this to me. But what can you do? My mother cried every day. It’s messed up,” he says.
On August 22, Cambodian General Department of Identification officials picked up the returnees from the airport and took them to the Khmer Vulnerability Aid Organization (KVAO). This was to be their first time stepping on Cambodian soil.
The KVAO, which receives American funding and began in 2002, provides support for Cambodian deportees from the US. It provides assistance with documentation and employment, as well as helping with temporary housing.
“We can’t read and write Khmer. The NGO helped feed us, found us somewhere to stay. [Many] local people are very poor, and they don’t get the same kind of help we got, so I kind of feel that we are a spoiled bunch."
“I don’t want to be the sort of person who does not appreciate it when people have helped,” James says.
James has restaurant experience from having worked in the US, and so he will look for jobs in that sector.
He says he is willing to start at the bottom.
The spokesperson for the General Department of Identification at the Ministry of Interior, Prok May Oudom, says his department will issue birth certificates for the 30 returnees. More than half of them have already been reunited with their relatives.
“We are processing birth certificates for them because they have only just arrived,” he says. “So next week they will be able to get their birth certificates. They will also receive their identification cards. They will become Cambodian citizens.”