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<p>Photo by Vyreak Sovann</p>

Photo by Vyreak Sovann

The Children of the Killing Fields

They fled the horrors of Cambodia’s genocide in search of a haven in the United States. Now scores of Cambodian refugees are being sent back to a country they barely know, because of crimes for which they’ve already done their time.


Philadelphia is a city at the very heart of America's sweeping narrative. Home to Benjamin Franklin, the Liberty Bell and the Declaration of Independence, its name is taken from the Greek words for "brotherly love." The perfect place, you might have thought, for refugees from one of the greatest bloodlettings of the 20th century to start afresh; a city where, just like Philly's small-time scrapper Rocky Balboa (aka Sylvester Stallone), you might get a shot at the American dream.

But for many in Philadelphia's 20,000-strong Cambodian community that dream has remained out of reach. Theirs is not an American success story. Instead it's the story of a tragedy that refuses to go away, a tragedy borne of the horrors unleashed by the murderous dictator Pol Pot and the secret US bombing campaign that helped create the conditions for his rise to power.

Children of the Killing Fields

That campaign is now a handful of American wars away. People have forgotten that more bombs rained down on Cambodia than the Allies dropped on Japan during World War II. Newer wars and their consequences, most prominently Iraq and Afghanistan, have claimed the spotlight in the national debate. But the very presence of 275,000 Cambodians living throughout America is testament to the responsibility the United States still bears for the refugees of its disastrous war in Indo-China.

Why then are up to 2,000 of those refugees living now under threat of deportation back to Cambodia, a country they fled as small children, a country they no longer fit into and a country where they have little prospect of making a living?

<p>Photo by Vyreak Sovann</p>

Photo by Vyreak Sovann

Laws provide for no judicial review.

Mout Iv

I met Mout Iv two summers ago in his barber shop in north Philadelphia. A hip-hop version of a Norman Rockwell illustration, this cocoon from the city's hardscrabble streets came complete with a revolving barber's pole, talcum powder, a steady flow of light-hearted banter and a vast collection of memorabilia from Mout's beloved Phillies baseball team. "Sports was something that got me into the American way," Mout tells me. "We learned basketball from the blacks and baseball from the whites."

Business was steady, steady enough that Mout owned the store as well as the apartment above it where he lived with his fiancée and his daughter. Another child was on the way. Following enough upheaval, setbacks and stumbles to last several lifetimes it appeared the 33-year-old barber might finally be getting ahead.

One month later he was taken into custody by immigration officials. He spent nine months in a county prison and was then put on a plane to Cambodia for a crime he committed almost a decade ago and for which he already had been punished. Mout has little or no possibility of ever returning to his family in the United States.

According to Mia-lia Kiernan, a Philadelphia-based advocate for Cambodian deportees, "Mout arrived in Cambodia with the clothes that he was wearing and nothing else. He didn't have any ID. He arrived in this country with no documentation to prove that he was himself and he hadn't been there since he was a young boy."

Mout Iv had become one of about 300 Cambodians from around the United States to be deported under strict US anti-terrorism and immigration laws mandating deportation for non-citizens who have committed even relatively minor and non-violent crimes. Over the coming years many more Cambodian refugees who entered the United States legally may also be deported under these laws, which are retroactive and contain no provisions for judicial discretion or review.

In 1998 Mout was convicted of aggravated assault after a street fight and spent three and a half years in jail. Had he been able to tell his story before a judge he would have told the same one he recounted to me in his barber shop.

<p>Photo by Vyreak Sovann</p>

Photo by Vyreak Sovann

Protesting retroactive deportation.

When he was two years old, Mout, his mother and two sisters fled Cambodia and spent the next seven years in a camp inside the Thai border. In 1986 they were accepted as refugees in the United States and came to live in Philadelphia. Like most of the refugees being taken in at this time, Mout's family came from a rural background with little or no formal education. They couldn't speak any English.

The urban blight into which they moved in Philadelphia was among the worst in the United States. The city was in the midst of a recession and government assistance was minimal. As Mout recounts: "It was real hard. My mom was raising me. It was just me, my mom and two sisters. We struggled to have a bowl of rice sometime."

While Mout's mother and other Cambodian refugees of her generation were left to make sense of the incomprehensible - the genocide they'd just lived through - and cope mostly alone with post-traumatic stress disorders, younger refugees such as Mout began their American education in some of the poorest and most ill-equipped schools in the country.

The sour urban cocktail of drugs, gangs and violence awaited these Cambodian kids. Discriminated against and harassed by other youths because they were different, the statistics speak for themselves. According to the Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia, 70 per cent of young Cambodians who grow up in Philadelphia fail to finish high school. In too many cases, this leads to unemployment, poverty and trouble with the law.

Mout's childhood friend, the rapper Joe Hanzsum, says, "We were just placed in the housing projects in the poor neighborhoods, and you gotta fend for yourself. I lost a lot of friends in the streets from drugs or gang violence."

<p>Photo by Vyreak Sovann</p>

Photo by Vyreak Sovann

Hundreds of Cambodians have been deported.

Mout himself doesn't attempt to gloss over his past as a gang member or depict himself as blameless for his current plight. "I put myself in this situation," he says. "I got involved in some juvenile delinquent stuff … runnin' the streets, didn't stay at home, drinkin' and smokin'. So I got into trouble and got involved with the system."

In his days of running the streets Mout, like so many other Cambodian deportees, never thought to take out US citizenship although he was eligible as a bone fide refugee. He simply assumed that having a green card was tantamount to citizenship, and no one bothered to tell him otherwise. Had Mout become a citizen, his criminal conviction would have been handled like any other American's.

However, the laws under which he was deported specifically included green card holders. These laws - the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act - were enacted in 1996 by the Clinton administration during a period of heightened anti-immigration sentiment partly sparked by the World Trade Centre bombing three years earlier. These laws significantly increased the categories of crimes for which legal residents could be deported, to include now such crimes as possession of more than 30 grams of marijuana and theft with a prison term of more than a year. No provisions were made for judicial review.

In the wake of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the 1996 laws were more aggressively enforced. In 2011, 216,000 so-called criminal aliens were deported from the US, compared to 71,000 deportations in 2001 (official statistics do not disclose how many of these were green-card holders). Cambodian-Americans began to be affected only when a repatriation agreement was signed with the Cambodian government in 2002. Prior to this date Cambodia had refused to sign such a pact; commentators have speculated that the US threatened to exert pressure on the World Bank to cut back aid if a deal wasn't struck on deportees.

No statute of limitations was included in the repatriation agreement, meaning crimes like Mout's, committed years earlier, are still deemed deportable. Caitlin Barry, a Philadelphia-based lawyer who has represented Cambodian deportees, says the number of deportations has snowballed since the repatriation deal was struck and as the Department of Homeland Security's budget to target criminal aliens has grown. "This is the toughest administration on criminal deportations that this country has ever had. The numbers are higher than they've ever been." According to Barry: "the Obama administration has been selling refugees with criminal records down the river in exchange for wider immigration reform."

Mia-lia Kiernan

Mia-lia Kiernan is herself the daughter of a Cambodian refugee. Her father is the eminent Australian professor Ben Kiernan, who founded the Cambodian Genocide Program at Yale University. A year ago she set up the One Love organization to attract public attention to the crisis in America's Cambodian community. She has visited Mout Iv in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh and says his and the other deportees' plight is bleak: "It's difficult. It's hard to find jobs and there's a lot of division between the local population and the returnees."

To those in the heated immigration debate in the United States who argue that the likes of Mout Iv have abused America's generosity by committing crimes and no longer deserve to be here, Kiernan counters that the US has a particular responsibility to those refugees still suffering from the traumas of its wars in Indochina.

Mia-lia Kiernan also asks people to consider the simple notion of a second chance: "In the United States we have this value of second chances and believing people can change. Mout was deported for a crime he committed almost a decade ago. He has served his time for that crime. It was something he did when he was young and dumb. He had been rehabilitated and learned from those mistakes.'"

Just two months after Mout Iv was taken into custody by immigration officials, President Obama made a call to the owner of the Philadelphia Eagles, Mout's local football team. The president wanted to thank the Eagles for giving its star quarterback Michael Vick a second chance after he'd served a jail term for orchestrating an illegal dog-fighting ring. A Presidential spokesman said: "He [Obama] of course condemns the crimes that Michael Vick was convicted of but, as he's said previously, he does think that individuals who have paid for their crimes should have an opportunity to contribute to society again."

That's the same second-chance Mout Iv, an American child of Cambodia's killing fields, would have liked to have had.

3 comments on this story
by John H

Thank you, Michael, for your several excellent contributions to the opening days of The Global Mail. How good to have some thoughtful, real journalism back!
No different in Australia to the Cambodian in your empathetic account of the Cambodians in Philly.
The our shame, the same conditions apply to refugees and visa over-stayers under Australian law. The Immigration Act specifically provides that non-citizens convicted of an offence which carries a potential penalty of imprisonment of 12 months or over will be deported after serving the sentence. Several notable examples of adults who came as children accompanying immigrant parents but neglected to become Oz citizens being forcibly deported after serving time for offences which would, in all likelihood, have attracted counselling and mental health assistance for a citizen.

February 8, 2012 @ 11:42am
by Amanda

Interestingly, this issue is being highlighted in the White House's Tell-Your-Story Competition. Vote for the film "My Asian Americana" which features Cambodian returnees recalling their favorite parts about the USA, while on the streets of Phnom Penh. If the film is selected, the filmmakers will have the chance to go to the White House to talk about this issue.

February 21, 2012 @ 9:41pm
by Richard Holroyd

Having viewed many videos and stories about Cambodia and its people my heart is for this unfortunate nation..although I myself have never been there. Apparently even today its people can be pushed around and kicked off land they live on if someone with more dollars wants it....no matter how much hardship it causes.It certainly is a lousy world . All I can say is to encourage Cambodians in the U.S. to do whatever it takes to become permanent citizens and try to stay on the right side of the law.........it may not be easy in a "foreign" culture but it may be better than Cambodia......P.S. ask Jesus to help you!!

February 25, 2013 @ 11:02pm
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