KIRA KAY: When Chally Dang was growing up in Philadelphia, he dreamed of playing professional basketball.
CHALLY DANG: We’d just shoot hoops and dream of one day making it big in the NBA. So it’s part of being American.
KIRA KAY: But America is just a memory for Dang. He plays his Sunday pick-up game 9-thousand miles from Philadelphia, in Phnom Penh, the Capital of Cambodia, where his parents were born.
Dang is not here by choice. He grew up in the U.S. as a legal permanent resident, a child of war refugees. But in 2011, he was deported to a country he never knew.
CHALLY DANG: Everything was different, it was like a culture shock. The environment is different, the people are different, the language is different.
KIRA KAY: His crime was firing a gun in the air during a gang standoff when he was 15-years-old. He served five years, and upon release, the government ordered him deported, but didn’t act on it. He got a job and had five kids. But deportation orders never expire, and eight years later, when Dang went for a routine immigration check-in, he was detained and put on a plane to Cambodia. He says there’s a stigma to being a deportee.
CHALLY DANG: We are in our own category, because the Cambodian community look at us as foreigners who decided to come back, and those that know we were deported look at us like we are criminals that got rejected from another country so why are we back in Cambodia?
KIRA KAY: Dang is one of 550 deportees from America now living in Cambodia. They began arriving in 2002, when this country signed a repatriation agreement with the U.S. to accept green card holders of Cambodian descent who had committed aggravated felonies — even nonviolent offenses that carried short sentences.
The “Cool Lounge,” a bar run by deportees, is home away from home for these people who went to American schools, listened to American music, ate American food.
Chandara Tep is from Modesto, California.
CHANDARA TEP: I grew up 4th of July, you know, fireworks, BBQ, Spring breaks. I shed tears when 9/11 happened, because I felt like I was American too.
KIRA KAY: Tep was deported six years ago, following his conviction for assaulting a police officer. Sophea Phea and Bobby Orn also arrived in 2011, Kalvin Heng, in 2004.
Heng and Phea weren’t born in Cambodia. Like many deportees they were born in refugee camps in Thailand, after their parents fled war and the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime that ruled Cambodia in the 1970s and killed two million people. The American bombing of Cambodia during its war in Vietnam added to the chaos. The U.S. eventually granted asylum to 150-thousand Cambodian refugees between 1975 and 1994.
CHANDARA TEP: You come from a jungle to a concrete jungle. You are over here in Cambodia, you know, you dodging bullets. Over there you’re living in the project, you’re dodging muggers and robbers and thieves.
SOPHEA PHEA: In the states, being in bad neighborhoods, sometimes we make mistakes, and sometimes we go on a wrong path, and not knowing what the bigger consequences are.
KIRA KAY: These children of refugees say they had no idea their brushes with the law made them vulnerable to deportation. Kalvin Heng says he didn’t fight his assault with a deadly weapon charge and accepted a one-year sentence, not knowing that made him deportable.
KALVIN HENG: We weren’t informed about taking a plea bargain, or anything like that. If we take a plea bargain we could be, you know we could face deportation, and so on and so on. We didn’t know any of that until like now, when we started doing our research.
KIRA KAY: American immigration judges have no leeway to consider how potential deportees have rehabilitated their lives. Tep had been out of prison for 13 years when he was deported, leaving a wife and three kids behind.
CHANDARA TEP: We changed our lives. We had families, you know. We bought a home, you know, we did all that stuff already, and then knock-knock, you know, ‘You’ve got to go, because you’re not a citizen.’
KIRA KAY: By the time they land in Cambodia, deportees have been stripped of all American identification. Cambodian immigration officials give them a single document with their name, birth date, and photo. Their lives start over from scratch.
SOPHEA PHEA: I had no luggage. I had about $150 in my pocket. No possessions at all.
CHANDARA TEP: Everything’s in Cambodian and you don’t even know how to write your name in Cambodian.
KIRA KAY: Local officials wouldn’t even recognize Heng’s immigration document. So he got creative.
KALVIN HENG: My uncle had to play my dad. And then I had to be put into his family book and use the identity of my cousin that passed away the year before I came. So I was under a whole new identity for 12, 13 years.
KIRA KAY: What do you say to the comment that I’m sure you guys get a lot, ‘Tough luck, you guys had an opportunity in the states, you blew it?’
CHANDARA TEP: What I say? My answer’s always like this: yes, I messed up, I confess to it, you know what I mean, but you are not seeing where we’re coming from, You know, we’re refugees of the war and I lost my rights, of course, because I’m not a citizen. But my kids has rights, my mom has rights, a right to be a family member, a right to be with one another, you know what I mean.
SOPHEA PHEA: I do believe that you do the crime you do the time, and you know for most of us, or all of us, we’ve done our time.
BILL HEROD: These are not illegal immigrants. They didn’t sneak into the U.S.
KIRA KAY: American Bill Herod was living in Cambodia when the deportees began arriving in 2002. He says back in the U.S., officials had left refugees to fend for themselves.
BILL HEROD: Because of the failure of the refugee resettlement program, no case officer came around and knocked on the door and said, ‘You need to fill out these papers to get citizenship.’
KIRA KAY: Herod’s charity, the “Returnee Integration Support Center,” or “RISC,” is staffed by deportees and helps newcomers through the difficult adjustment. [Editor’s note: Herod, founder of the original Returnee Assistance Project, no longer has an official role with the Returnee Integration Support Center.]
BILL HEROD: They actually live here in this building if they don’t have any place else to go, or we pay to put them in a guest house. And just help them get on their feet. And then we find out what their interests are, what their work experience is, and try to help them find jobs.
KIRA KAY: RISC has helped 50 American deportees train for and obtain jobs teaching English and keeps tabs on them as they assimilate into Cambodian society. Despite many success stories, some deportees succumb to drug use, mental health problems, and crime. Herod lost an eye when grabbing drano out of the hands of a despondent deportee.
BILL HEROD: And some don’t make it. We’ve had suicides. And it’s heartbreaking when we realize that maybe if we’d made another field visit or another phone call or taken him out for pizza one more time, we might have been able to help them get across that blockage.
KIRA KAY: Deportees struggle with whether or not to reveal their criminal records. Heng works as an advertising manager at a local English-language newspaper and was candid with his employer.
KALVIN HENG: I’ve made a mistake in the past. I’ve did my time for it. I’ve rehabilitated. So please don’t look at what I’ve done in the past affect what I can contribute. And they’ve been very good to me about it.
KIRA KAY: But Phea, who was deported for credit card fraud, needed three years to open up to others about her past.
SOPHEA PHEA: I was lonely. I was depressed, I kind of was lost.
KIRA KAY: She now teaches Cambodian children in a Phnom Penh school, but she isn’t raising her own 13-year-old son, who remains in California with his father.
SOPHEA PHEA: I’m angry that this has fractured my relationship with my son. We don’t have that communication anymore. I don’t know if he’s going to turn out to be angry at me or just holding grudges against me or just feeling lonely that I’m not there.
KIRA KAY: He visited her last year for the first time. She hopes it won’t be the last.
SOPHEA PHEA: And he didn’t know how to call me ‘mom’ anymore, and that hurts.
KIRA KAY: In the U.S., deportee families and Cambodian-American community leaders have lobbied American officials for changes in immigration policy with few results. Last year, Kalvin Heng had a realization.
KALVIN HENG: I just blurted it out, you know, ‘Let’s take it to the Cambodian government.’
KIRA KAY: Heng recruited his deportee friends and formed a political action group, “One Love Cambodia.” They are pushing to amend the repatriation agreement from the Cambodian side. Most crucially, they want the Cambodian Government to refuse to accept anyone who was once a refugee. To their surprise, this group of ex-convicts was granted a meeting with high level officials at Cambodia’s Interior Ministry.
SOPHEA PHEA: They sat there and listened to each of our stories and seeing what we struggle here.
KALVIN HENG: No one had gone up to them and officially filed for a grievance and, you know, really let them know that you know this is really really messing up our communities and our families across the U.S.
KIRA KAY: Only days after that meeting, the Cambodian Government sent a letter to the American Embassy, requesting to amend the current repatriation agreement and “suspend temporarily the implementation” until a new deal is struck. The U.S. rejected Cambodia’s request to suspend deportations and has sometimes withheld visas and economic aid from countries that refuse to accept deportees. U.S. Officials have agreed to a first discussion with Cambodia, expected to take place soon.
Just 10 days ago, Cambodia’s Prime Minister publicly demanded to renegotiate the agreement, calling the deportations “a sad separation” of families.
CHANDARA TEP: Nobody ever stepped up to them and told them. ‘This is what’s happening…’
KIRA KAY: The “One Love Cambodia” team is assisting the Cambodian Government in preparation for the talks — talks they hope will yield changes that might come too late for them, but could stop others from following in their footsteps.
Produced in partnership with New York University’s GlobalBeat journalism program.