After tapping into a drug network, he moved back to Amherst to take over a profitable piece of turf near the state university. Conflicts with other dealers flared, and in 1998 Chhim decided to make a statement by robbing a rival at gunpoint. During a standoff, he fired, striking his victim in the neck. “If I could take it all back, I would,” Chhim says. “I have to live with that crime my whole life.”
The rival dealer survived to testify, and Chhim received a 10-year sentence. In prison, remorse at disappointing his aunt ate at him. His worst day came in 2002, he says, when he learned she had died of a heart attack. (Chhim’s uncle has suffered poor health since 2000.) Despite poverty, diabetes, and dialysis, his aunt had routinely visited him behind bars, Chhim says; she would travel for hours by bus and then weep softly as he rubbed her tired feet and work-worn hands. “I would usually cry after her visits,” he recalls, tearing up. “That’s when I really started to experience love.”
It was also when he decided he could turn his life around. He obtained his GED in prison and took anger management and resume-writing courses. Prison “taught me how to grow up,” he says. Still, after serving nine years and four months, Chhim failed to transition to the clean life he imagined and began violating probation. Fearing the inevitable deportation, he began a year underground. “It was just keep running and trying to survive,” he says.
Chhim knew only horror stories of his homeland: a quarter of the population diseased, starved, or put to death by the Khmer Rouge; a life of tilling fields from dusk till dawn; a sweltering climate and authoritarian system in which the privileged crush and exploit the impoverished. And worse. “Everybody heard stories about Cambodian jails,” he says.
Lowell police caught up with Chhim in 2010. He spent 15 months in jail and detention centers and in May 2011 was flown to Phnom Penh. There, he could have tumbled into a life of crime, substance abuse, and resentment, the fate of many returnees. But the affable, broad-shouldered Chhim does not believe in “thinking backwards.” Sipping a Coke on a 99-degree day in Phnom Penh, he says: “A lot of deportees are bitter. We have to break that cycle.”
Chhim works six days a week as a projectionist at a movie theater, husbanding his $300 or so in monthly income by sleeping in a cheap room provided by the theater owner. “I’ve never worked this hard in my life,” he says. “I’m really proud of myself and wish my [aunt] could see my potential.”
THAT POTENTIAL IS SOMETHING the Rev. Bill Herod has been trying to unlock for years. An Indiana minister who has lived in Cambodia since 1994, he started the Returnee Integration Support Center in Phnom Penh in 2002 to help deportees like Chhim obtain documents, housing, jobs, and drug treatment. He knows of 12 returnees who have died, several from suicide or drug overdoses. Another 17 are in prison. Some arrive without the medical paperwork required under the US-Cambodia repatriation agreement, which Herod believes is crucial for their physical and emotional well-being. All are left to fend for themselves.
“Most do not transition easily into Cambodian life,” says Herod. He lost an eye when drain cleaner splashed into his face as he tried to tear the poison from the hands of a suicidal returnee. “Most have strong resistance to the country, the people, the food, the society, the traditions, the language,” he says. Those who succeed must choose not to give up.
“Virtually all of these individuals lived in the US during their formative years,” says Herod, “and whatever trouble they got into was the result of their time in the United States, not Cambodia. It is unfair to penalize these people, and the people of Cambodia, for the failures of the US refugee resettlement program.”
In Lowell, the effects of poor integration, lack of education, and bad decisions continue to plague the new generation of Cambodian-Americans. Gregg Croteau, executive director of the United Teen Equality Center in Lowell, which offers work and study opportunities for at-risk youths, has seen it firsthand. Many come from broken homes, have criminal records, and do drugs. His newly refurbished center is trying to battle this epidemic, Croteau says, by helping these kids “trade violence and poverty for social and economic success.”
Opened in 1999 and serving 1,000 teens a year, a third of them Cambodian, the center is a haven from gang violence and life on the fringes. Located in an old Methodist church, it offers training in the building trades, culinary classes, counseling, and GED preparation. Cambodian youths stop by after work or school to learn carpentry, play foosball, shoot baskets, and hone their music skills in a new recording studio, part of a recent 8,000-square-foot addition inaugurated by Governor Deval Patrick in mid-November. Continued...