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Tuesday, 11 February, 2003, 00:47 GMT
Cambodians deported home
Game of basketball played by deportees
Most deportees find Cambodia an unfamiliar country

They came to the United States as refugees from the Khmer Rouge, and grew up as Cambodian-Americans, another group of immigrants in the melting pot.

Now they are going back, deported after committing serious crimes in America.

Of more than 1,400 Cambodians are on the deportation list, around 40 have arrived so far.

They are returning to a land they barely know, leaving behind lives and families in America.

In a dusty schoolyard in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, a basketball game is in progress.

Sometimes I pray, please just let me get out of this country

Burnath, deportee

A high-school team is taking on a group of Cambodian men, recent arrivals from America.

It is not hard to tell who is who.

The men shout in English and wear baggy clothes and gang tattoos that might give some indication of why they have been deported back to Cambodia, to a country they fled as children.

Many are finding it hard to return.


Burnath is 27 and lived in northern California from the age of five, before being deported after a gang-related conviction.

"If you sit inside your room, you see a movie, you feel like you are in America. But if you turn the TV off and walk outside the door, you see I am Cambodian," he said.

"They think we are all crazy," says another deportee, Oun Kleng, who moved to Texas when he was a young boy.

This Cambodian-American deportee didn't want his face shown
Some deportees are former gang members
"Mostly we do not know much about the law, the rules. Everything is too new. And every time we talk to them in our language, to them it sounds funny. People look at us like we are clowns," he said.

These men are among 36 Cambodians deported so far from the US.

Many have been convicted of serious crimes such as gang-related violence and armed robbery, and as a result have lost their right to stay in America.

Hundreds more are likely to follow in the next few years.

Fending for themselves

Once back in Cambodia, the deportees get no government support and are left to fend for themselves in an unfamiliar country.

Some of the returnees have made the adjustment so they are blending in

Bill Herod
"It never occurred to them that they would be coming back to Cambodia," says Bill Herod, a long-time resident in Cambodia who has set up a support network for the newcomers.

"They have all lived in the US for many years, since they were small children. They do not have any connection with contemporary Cambodia," he said.

A huge wave of Southeast Asian refugees came to America in the 1970s and 1980s, many fleeing conflict zones.

Most did not take the trouble to apply for citizenship, a decision that has come back to haunt the deportees now in Cambodia, who could have escaped being sent back if they had done this.

Oun Kleng explained: "When you are a permanent resident, you don't expect that you going to do something wrong. But once you have messed up and been convicted of a felony, you are on your way."

Back in Phnom Penh, some of the deportees have already got into trouble with the law, perhaps predictably after their long confinement.

It is mostly minor stuff, although some incidents have turned violent.

Sending violent gang members back to a poor, lawless country is also cause for concern among Cambodian officials.

But there are success stories too.

Some have found good jobs and two of the initial returnees have got married and settled down.

Blending in

"Some of the returnees have made the adjustment so they are blending in," says Bill Herod.

"They just live ordinary lives in Cambodia, wear ordinary clothes.

"Others really resist blending in, so they intentionally wear American clothes, basketball shoes and baggy shorts, drive bikes and do not work, all of these things to show they are not blending in, they are here as tourists," he says.

Perhaps the biggest challenge, apart from finding a job and staying out of trouble, is accepting that their American lives are over, at least for now.

For Burnath, being sent back to Cambodia is a kind of purgatory, but one that shows no sign of ending.

"I still think about my family. Sometimes I pray, please just let met get out of this country," he says.

"But the God I know he say nothing, so everything I wish, he says forget about it."

See also:

27 Jun 01 | Asia-Pacific
13 Jan 01 | From Our Own Correspondent
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