The Kingdom of Cambodia. It sounds romantic and exotic. Maybe so, but hidden deep within is a land filled with memories of pain and death. Vacant eyes still roam the streets. Life is like the movie Groundhog Day, each day is the same; the smells, the noise, the weather, the traffic, the barking dogs, the vendor’s loudspeaker, the roosters crowing, barefoot children running in the street wearing tattered clothes, wedding canopies, and funeral processions. Everything the same day-after-day.
Soon I will fasten my seatbelt and head for this Kingdom. From my driveway to my hotel room, a 30 hour journey. I have visited the Kingdom several times. Since 2010 I have made this trek seven times, eight counting this one. I am so glad you will follow my journey (be sure to comment too).
The purpose of my travelogue is to encourage you and inspire you. I will try my best to describe the city of Phnom Penh, the people who live there, and even the food I eat along the way. Why do I do this? Why do I travel over 8,000 miles to this southeast Asian country?
Around the year 2,000, the United States deported young men of Cambodian descent to Cambodia. These young men (and several women) came to the United States as babies or young children. Their parents were refugees, escaping persecution from the Khmer Rouge regime which had taken over Cambodia in the 1970’s. Over 2,000,000 Cambodians experienced torture and death from 1975 to 1979. It was four years of Hell. Those who escaped death made their way to Vietnam or Thailand and lived in refugee camps. Later, many of those families boarded flights to the United States to begin a new life.
The Cambodian refugees had a difficult time adjusting to life in America. The adults suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from the ravages of war, and there were limited systems in place by our government to help them adjust to a new land and become responsible citizens.
Left to themselves, they stuck to themselves. They did not assimilate and did not become American citizens. Parents and children became detached from each other due to a generational and cultural chasm. With no encouragement from their parents, the children did not become citizens.
As these children of refugees, most of them from poor families, saw the lifestyle of the American children they wanted the same. With disengaged parents, the children grew into teenagers and joined gangs to search for the love and possessions missing from their home. As non-citizens, Cambodian/American teenagers committed crimes which placed them on the Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) watch list.
Fast forward now to the year 2010, the deportations continued. This time the victim was Chantha Kong, our Hope Now graduate and Youth of the Year for that year. Chantha came to America when he was two years old. Like other boys, he joined a gang and got arrested.
Although he had committed his crime several years before and served time in jail, because he was not a citizen of the U.S., ICE officials, randomly selected him for deportation. He was arrested, shackled, placed on a plane and sent to the country of his parent’s birth.
Before he was deported, Chantha’s life had already changed for the better. He married, held a good job, attended college, owned a car, paid taxes, had finished our Hope Now program, and attended church regularly. All was going so well.
One day he received a call from ICE asking him to come in to their office and sign a few papers. A compliant person by nature, Chantha went to the office. As he entered, the officers placed him under arrest. They seized his drivers license and impounded his car. ICE told him they were taking him to Bakersfield (a couple hours south of Fresno) to complete paperwork and he would be home tomorrow. These were lies. Once in Bakersfield they told him he would be deported to Cambodia soon.
Chantha, born in Thailand, had never stepped foot in Cambodia. He didn’t know the language well, could not read it, and had no close relatives in Cambodia who he could contact for help. The U.S. Government even changed his birth certificate to read he was born in Cambodia, not Thailand.
Back in the United States, we tried several avenues to stop the deportation including writing and calling media outlets, contacting elected officials, and going before a judge. Each move we made was a dead end.
In November of 2010, the United States immigration officials put Chantha on a plane with two armed guards (shackled the entire time), destination Phnom Penh. When the plane doors opened, they told him to have a nice life. That was it, the United States closed the door on him, he could never return. Chantha had a small bag of clothes and less than a hundred dollars in his pocket. He was on his own.
Several days after he landed in Phnom Penh, I flew there with a my good friend, pastor Fenton MacDonald. We began helping him find his way. We did not know what to do, but we trusted God and He opened doors. Chantha’s wife (An American citizen) arrived the day after our arrival and she has remained by her husband’s side for six years.
What we thought a tragedy, God meant it for good. Today, Chantha directs our small but effective Hope Now work there. He encourages and helps guide young men who like himself have suffered deportation. He helps mentor children through the YMCA and is an active member of his Christian church.
As of my last visit in April of 2016 there were 504 deported Cambodian/American young men (and several women) living in Cambodia. Life is hard for most of them. My trip this month is to encourage, train, teach, and strengthen Chantha and the others there. Two other men I will write about are my good friends, Mout and Sam. They have helped us find jobs and are encouragers themselves. Each have their own story which I may share along the way.
And that is why I am boarding a plane soon.
So fasten your own seatbelt and get ready to come along with me to the Kingdom of Cambodia.