Cambodian-Americans confronting deportation
The number of “Khmericans” being sent back to their homeland is on the rise. Meet one young man yearning for the old days in Lowell, Massachusetts, but committed to starting over.
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SOKHA CHHIM rarely heads to work without a black Red Sox cap propped on his head. He makes sure his Nikes stay flashy and white, that the legs of his baggy jeans drape at just the right angle. Sometimes he’ll don a royal blue jersey featuring Tom Brady’s No. 12. But in a concession to his new homeland, Chhim hangs a black and gray scarf called a krama around his neck instead of the gangster chain he wore on the streets of Lowell.
Chhim is an outcast, one of 30 or so Cambodian-Americans lawbreakers from Massachusetts sent back to Cambodia in the last 10 years. He was deported to Phnom Penh in May 2011 after violating probation in the shooting of a rival drug dealer, arriving penniless and unwanted. He speaks broken Khmer, has no family to lean on, and needs a map to navigate this zigzagging city of nearly 2 million. Yet he is putting down roots in native soil he never knew. And unlike most exiled “Khmericans,” who seethe over their loss of American residency, he is finding his own redemption.
“When I first arrived, I was stunned,” the 31-year-old Chhim says of life in Cambodia’s capital, an enchanting but fractured city that teems with amputees, beggars, and mutts, yet features glorious French Colonial architecture, fine European restaurants, and fleets of Lexus SUVs. “America is all I knew. Everything about me was American.”
But “Cambodia opened my eyes,” he says. “I’ve found a reason to live.”
As federal officials broaden efforts nationwide to seize and deport immigrants with criminal records, the streets of Phnom Penh will inevitably see more Massachusetts exiles like Chhim. Some 600 Cambodian-Americans, virtually all of them male and a majority convicted criminals, have been shipped to Asia’s most traumatized nation since 2002, when Cambodia signed a repatriation agreement with the United States. Federal data show that deportations averaged 41 per year from 2001 through 2010, only to leap to 97 in 2011 and 93 last year. “People are getting picked up left and right,” says June Beack, a lawyer at Neighborhood Legal Services in Lynn who has defended Cambodian-Americans facing deportation.
Cambodians have long posed a deportation dilemma for the United States. Brought here as victims of the Vietnam War and the Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge, most were dropped into ghettos in Lowell, Lynn, and Long Beach, California, and left to overcome cultural and language barriers with little support from the government that took them in. While illiterate adults fell into low-pay work, their children stumbled through crowded public schools or took to the streets in violent gangs. Many of those eventually deported had become hardened felons, but others were exiled for first-time misdemeanors like shoplifting or check fraud. A major reason for their expulsion is that they never obtained citizenship, an option open to them as war refugees. Chhim was in that category, and the result of his blunder was a one-way trip to an unknown land.
“All of them want to become citizens,” says Rasy Ross An, director of the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association of Lowell, a nonprofit group. “But it’s not easy to learn English, and it’s expensive when you are struggling to survive.”
Lowell’s 13,300 Cambodians form the second-largest concentration in the nation, after Long Beach, with 50,000. (Lynn has 3,500.) They account for 13 percent of Lowell’s population, according to city data. Since settling there in the 1980s, they have taken notable strides, owning dozens of small businesses and seating the City Council’s second Cambodian-American member, Vesna Nuon, last year. But there are well-documented problems. For two decades, Southeast Asian gangs lured Khmerican teens living in Lowell by the hundreds, offering them a sense of belonging they could not find elsewhere. Jean Sherlock, a high school teacher in Chicopee who studied Lowell’s Cambodian gangs in graduate school, was a mentor to Chhim. She recalls him as an “upbeat, gregarious” teenager. “I remember there is one photo of a birthday party at our house and there he is, at the back of the photo, holding up a peace sign,” she says. Some of the fault for his fate, she says, belongs with the state’s education and justice systems, which do too little to steer young people like Chhim and his peers away from gang life. “The system isn’t set up to give these kids what they need. It’s set up to lock them up.”
CHHIM STARTED LIFE as a lucky survivor of the murderous revolutionaries known as the Khmer Rouge. He was born in 1981 in a refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodian border, where he contracted a bacterial infection. Chhim’s mother, who remained in Cambodia, asked his aunt and uncle to take the ailing baby to Western Massachusetts, where they were being sponsored by a local couple. “I guess I was a cute baby, but I was sickly,” he says. As he came of age in Amherst, Chhim built up a resentment toward the endless list of responsibilities that came with being the sole English speaker in his home. “I felt like the whole world was on my back,” he recalls. “I got tired of always waiting for the cable guy.” He began skipping school, getting into fights, and smoking marijuana. His first run-in with the law was at age 14, when he spent a night in jail for driving a stolen vehicle. He soon quit school and moved to Lowell on his own to find work. “Lowell was just worse,” he says. “Everybody around you was drug dealers, gangbangers.” Chhim joined up, eager to make money for that “new pair of Jordans,” he says.Continued...