Mennonite Central Committee Cambodia
Not long ago 26-year-old Chhaiya Chhamm moved from Denver, Colorado to Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
It wasn’t by choice, though.
Chhamm was charged with driving under the influence of alcohol and evading arrest when he was just a teenager. The young man spent three years behind bars, did another three years of probation, and nine months later was deported to a country he never called home.
Chhamm is technically a citizen of Cambodia. His mother is Khmer and gave birth to him in a Thai refugee camp after the killing fields era of the Khmer Rouge. The family received sponsorship from an American church to move to Denver in the early 1990s. The United States is all Chhamm has known for his whole life. He considers himself American, even though he never became a full citizen.
The same is true for many Cambodian refugees who moved to the United States to escape the violence, according to RISC.
Refugees left Cambodia traumatized and arrived in the United States to live impoverished lives in ghettos. Many didn’t realize they weren’t true citizens.
A U.S. law allows non-citizens to be expelled if they commit a felony, three misdemeanours, or any crime for which the sentence is more than one year in prison. There are 477 so-called “returnees” in Cambodia, according to the Returnee Integration Support Centre (RISC) in Phnom Penh, and that number is growing.
Chhamm is one of ten returnees who arrived in October, and the transition hasn’t been easy. He has no family in Cambodia and feels very isolated and depressed.
“It’s been a fight for survival as soon as they dropped me off here.” – Chhaiya Chhamm
“It’s been a fight for survival as soon as they dropped me off here,” Chhamm says.
RISC, a partner organization of MCC, is the only organization in the country that supports vulnerable men and women like Chhamm.
Supporting the vulnerable
Villa Kem is the co-director of RISC and says the organization will help another ten returnees set to arrive this month, and approximately 20 more after that during the year. Most of the returnees are men.
Kem says the integration process is challenging for everyone.
“Some returnees have wives and kids in the States. When they come here they’re by themselves. Some of them are the main financial supporters of the family. It affects the returnee and their family in the U.S. too,” he explains.
The Cambodian community also plays a role in the isolation returnees sometimes feel.
“They tend to look at the returnees as outsiders because they don’t fit in with the traditional culture and they don’t speak the language,” Kem says.
Chhamm says he’s experienced this persecution first-hand. One of the biggest challenges he’s faced thus far has been trying to fit in with the locals.
“They look down on us. They look at us in a different way.” – Chhaiya Chamm
“They look down on us. They look at us in a different way.”
Still, Kem says he and the RISC team are committed to helping returnees integrate.
RISC helps sponsor returnees if they don’t have family to do so. It also provides country orientation, temporary housing and a food stipend, education grants, and help to acquire the necessary paperwork for government-issued identification. After the returnees set off on their own, RISC staff do follow up visits all over the country, even in drug rehabilitation centres and prisons.
A few of the returnees are mentally disabled or suffer from mental health problems and are homeless. RISC helps these people access food and shelter.
Kem believes deportation is a harsh punishment on top of punishment, and it places returnees in a more vulnerable place.
The returnees are deported after their prison term is over. Kem says some of the returnees wait as long as 10 years after their sentence before they’re deported. During this time they often build a new life and a family. Then it’s all taken away.
“It’s harsh. It’s a harsh situation for an individual to go through.” – Villa Kem, RISC
“It’s harsh. It’s a harsh situation for an individual to go through,” Kem says.
Chhamm says the punishment fails to look past the crime to see the person and their background.
Life in Denver wasn’t easy for Chhamm. He says he was physically abused as a child by several men his mother dated, and his mother sometimes hit him, too. He was caught up in the cycle of alcoholism early on — something that plagues many in his family.
“The only way I could deal with the abuse was to drink,” he explains. “I put on a mask as soon as I walked out the door. There was a lot that went on, but I didn’t want to talk about it so I turned to drinking.”
When he ended up in prison and learned he would be deported, he was shocked.
“It’s kind of messed, though. I felt like they don’t really care. They didn’t really look at my situation,” Chhamm says.
He’s resigned himself to his new life in Cambodia, though, and has much to be thankful for.
Hope for the future
Chhamm says he’s grateful for the work RISC does. He is living in the RISC offices with six other returnees until he gets on his feet.
“It helps to be around other returnees,” he says. “We’re all here together for the same reason, so we can help each other.”
Kem says RISC was founded on the belief that every individual deserves a second chance and a new life.
In spite of their vulnerability and the real struggles they face to integrate, many returnees are success stories, he says.
RISC offers educational grants so returnees can go back to school and start a career here.
Some go on to work in the trades or in the private sector, but the great majority work as English teachers.
Chhamm hopes to be a success story, too. He started work as a security guard at a nearby club recently and wants to teach English, too.
“I just hope to be successful here, that I can pick up this language, and learn how to communicate with people here.”
This article was written by ICF’s Writer/Editor Rachel Bergen and was originally published on MCC Cambodia’s website.