Matt Driscoll

‘I had never seen my dad cry:’ Deported Cambodians bewildered by country they never knew

After deportation, Cambodian refugees find themselves in an unfamiliar home

Bill Herod discusses what refugees face when they are deported back to Cambodia.
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Bill Herod discusses what refugees face when they are deported back to Cambodia.

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Cambodian refugees face increased deportations under Trump


When new deportees arrive in Cambodia on a plane from the United States, their first stop is at the Khmer Vulnerability Aid Organization in the country’s capital of Phnom Penh.

For years, one of the first faces they would see was Bill Herod’s, the Cambodian nonprofit’s spokesman and former director.

Herod, 74, grew up in Indiana but has lived in Cambodia since 1994. With a head of white hair and a beard like Santa Claus, Herod described himself as “the only white face around.” Unlike Santa, however, Herod often wears an eye patch, the result of a 2005 incident with a suicidal deportee who was attempting to drink drain cleaner. Some of the liquid was splashed into Herod’s right eye during the struggle with the drunken man, permanently damaging his cornea.

Created under a different name in 2002, when the first group of American deportees arrived in the country, the KVAO, according Herod, “meets all returnees upon arrival, actually at the airport, on the tarmac.”

Nearly all are men. And nearly all were welcomed to the United States as refugee children in the late 1970s and early 1980s after surviving genocide and civil war in Cambodia, Herod said, only to now be forced to return to a country they’ve never actually known.

Recently, the KVAO has been a busy place. Under the administration of President Donald Trump, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has significantly increased the number of Cambodian refugees being deported — sometimes for crimes they were convicted of decades ago.

In fiscal year 2018, 110 people were deported to Cambodia, according to ICE. The number represented a 279 percent increase over the prior year.

According to KVAO, which tracks deportations by calendar year and also doesn’t include a small number of deportations annual deportations involving non-refugees, by either measure it there were more people than any previous year deported to Cambodia in 2018. Prior to 2018, the most refugee deportees to ever arrive in a single year was 88, Herod said, while a low of four arrived in 2013.

In a written response to questions posed by The News Tribune, ICE said Cambodian deportations take criminals off our streets and make our communities safer.

The agency said it is “statutorily mandated to enforce immigration law as enacted by Congress,” and it “prioritizes its enforcement resources on individuals who pose the greatest threat to national security, public safety and border security.”

Of the Cambodian refugees deported in 2018, many were “convicted of the most heinous possible crimes,” the agency said

Herod has worked at the KVAO since it started, creating it shortly after the first group of deportees arrived in 2002. He spoke to The News Tribune by phone from Cambodia.

Herod acknowledged that most of the deportees served by the KVAO arrive in Cambodia with criminal records in the U.S., some of them for serious offenses. But he said recidivism in their new country is rare. Since the KVAO opened in 2002, Herod said the criminal recidivism rate is “around 7 percent.”

BEHIND OUR REPORTING

Why this story matters

While immigration-related stories dominate headlines, the stories of Cambodian refugees have gone largely untold.

Read more by clicking the arrow in the upper right.

An under-reported issue

In January, The News Tribune’s Matt Driscoll first met with Lorng Raing, a Cambodian refugee whose family fled genocide and civil war and arrived in the United States in 1981. At the time, Lorng’s son, Roeuth An, had recently received an emergency, expedited pardon from Washington Gov. Jay Inslee for a crime he committed more than two decades earlier. Prior to receiving a pardon, An was facing deportation to a country his family fled four decades earlier. Subsequent reporting conducted by The News Tribune, including interviews with officials with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, illuminated both a recent increase in deportations to Cambodia and the reasons for it.

At the same time, dozens of local interviews conducted by The News Tribune revealed similar stories from families in the small Cambodian community that was being affected by the increase.

The Cambodian community

While Seattle-Tacoma has the third largest Cambodian population in the nation, according to recent Census estimates, overall it’s a tiny community, making up far less than 1 percent of the overall U.S. population.

It’s also a refugee population with a historically unique story in the United States, rooted in a genocide that many say the U.S.’s involvement in the Vietnam War helped lay the groundwork for.

Who did we speak to?

Refugees and their family members, officials with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, immigration lawyers, law enforcement, scholars, Gov. Jay Inslee’s office, nonprofit workers in Cambodia, refugees who have experienced deportation and former state and federal lawmakers.

“From conversations, we know that some of our clients come directly from prison, but I think that’s a small minority. Most of our clients served time years ago for something stupid they did as teenager,” Herod said. “I wouldn’t regard them as criminals now.”

The organization, which currently has 14 full-time employees, all of them Cambodian, tackles the simple and the complex. It helps new returnees get new birth certificates and ID cards and also works to help acclimate the deportees, offering things like medical services, cultural orientation, counseling and help finding a job.

The facility — or compound as Herod calls it — operates a dormitory, complete with bunk beds. Today, it’s equipped to house up to 50 individuals. New deportees are invited to stay — for months if need be — while they get settled.

According to Herod, the average stay at the KVAO is anywhere between six weeks to two months. Some stay three months or longer.

“It’s not a detention facility. It’s an open-gate facility, so they can go out and go shopping and wander around the streets while they’re staying with us, Herod said.

There was a time, not long ago, when housing 50 individuals at the KVAO would have been unthinkable.

Herod remembers when that began to change, starting with a meeting at the U.S. Embassy in December 2017.

At the time, the KVAO’s budget — which comes largely from the U.S. Agency for International Development, an independent agency that works with the U.S. State Department — was approximately $92,500 per year, Herod said. With staffing and available space, it was prepared to receive as many as 10 deportees at time.

At the embassy, Herod was asked what it would take to receive 50 at one time, because that’s what was coming.

“It was a great shock,” Herod said. “I went into the embassy with two of our staff, and we were ready to draw the line. … We just looked at each other in disbelief.”

The KVAO’s yearly budget, Herod said, was quickly increased to roughly $240,000 a year for 2018.

Overall, Herod said the KVAO was granted an estimated $1.25 million for the period of October 2018 through September 2024, with approximately $208,000 per year coming from the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Preparing for more

Though it took slightly longer than expected, in April 2018 the KVAO’s first large group of deportees arrived in Cambodia, Herod said. Then, four months later, in August, another large group touched down.

The most recent large group of deportees landed in Cambodia in December.

In total, 110 deportees arrived in Cambodia in 2018, according to ICE, marking a significant increase from previous years.

Of the five years of Cambodian deportation statistics ICE makes readily available, fiscal year 2015 — when there there were 16 deportations — marks the lowest.

Fiscal year 2014 — when there were 75 deportations — marks the highest.

According to Herod, since 2002 the average number of deportees the KVAO has received each calendar year was roughly 45. During that time, the organization has welcomed a total 701 refugee arrivals – all but 16 of them men.

Herod said the KVAO has now been told to prepare for 200 deportations each year for the next six years. If these expectations materialize, by 2024 it will nearly triple the number of U.S. deportees the KVAO said have arrived in the organization’s history.

“We’re expecting four large groups … of about 50, probably about three months apart,” he said. “We don’t have any control over that, so we don’t know. We understand they have a large group in detention now, so we’re expecting a large group of 45 or so, we don’t really know when, but I would think by June.”

According to an ICE official, the agency “does not comment on future removal operations due to operational security.” ICE would not confirm the the KVAO’s expectations of 200 arrivals in 2019, while Herod was uncertain whether deportations were on pace to hit that number.

A ‘deep shock’

As part of his long-standing role with the KVAO, Herod said he tends to take a “let’s just get on with it” perspective with deportees. It’s mindset borne out of necessity, he said, since the KVAO’s objective is to help deportees acclimate to their new country “as easily as possible.”

Still, Herod is frank about the challenges new deportees encounter.

He said they’re warned about the heat, which can be stifling, with temperatures regularly reaching into the triple digits, and the illegal drugs, which he describes as “prevalent,” “available” and “more powerful than in the states.”

There’s also the potential for culture shock.

Orientation efforts include lessons on Cambodian culture, covering things like bargaining in the market and showing respect for monks, women and elders. They also discuss life outside the city in the country’s rural villages, which typically lack electricity, plumbing and running water.

“We have to remember that many of these people are separated from spouses and children and certainly aging parents. Some were born in Thai refugee camps and have never stepped foot in Cambodia,” he said. “When we meet them when they first arrive, they’re in deep shock, and they can’t imagine how they’re going to survive here.”

Mental health and addiction issues have been a concern over the years. KVAO employees, Herod said, are trained to look out for these issues and are capable of intervening when necessary.

Dating back to 2002, Herod said at least six deportees have died by suicide. Currently, there are “about half a dozen cases” that the nonprofit is “most concerned about in terms of their own addiction,” he added.

“Over the years, others have gotten clean, and some have died. There are also cases of alcohol abuse or gambling and/or other addictive behaviors,” Herod said.

Meanwhile, PTSD is common among the general Cambodian population, Herod said, and “certainly among refugees.”

“It’s a matter of time,” Herod said of depression and other mental health concerns. “The first couple of years can be really dangerous. The first two months are the most difficult.”

“It’s sort of like the stages of grieving. There’s anger and bargaining and finally acceptance.”

A father, deported

Jane Chan ignored the phone call.

The decision haunts her to this day.

It came a little after noon. Chan, now 24, was working as a night manager at a pizza place in Kent Station. Her shift was just beginning. It was August 26, 2016.

She didn’t recognize the number, so she let it go to voicemail. She figured if it was important, the person calling would leave a message.

Later, when Chan listened to the message, she realized just how important the call was. What she heard took her breath away.

The call was from her dad in Minnesota. Chan Om, a Cambodian refugee had been detained and targeted for deportation. As Minnesota Public Radio reported less than a month later, it was because of the then 46-year-old’s part in the 2004 armed robbery of a St. Paul restaurant owner.

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Jane Chan photographed in Graham, Wash., on Wednesday, May 1, 2019. Joshua Bessex joshua.bessex@gateline.com

After serving his sentence, Om got a steady job and started volunteering at a local Buddhist temple, his wife told MPR. His wife also told the station that he was now known for doting on his niece.

Since Om’s release from prison in 2008, there are no other known felony convictions on his record, according to a search by The News Tribune.

“I just kind of froze. I remember one of my coworkers just starting at me. I just dropped to the floor. I couldn’t breathe,” Chan, who lives in Puyallup, recalled of the voicemail.

“(The message) was mixed with Khmer and English, so at first I didn’t understand what he was saying, He sounded really sad. At the end, he just went straight to English. He said, ‘Hey, baby. Daddy’s been detained.

“I knew what it meant.”

Nearly 15 years earlier, Chan moved to Washington with her mother and siblings. In the time since, her relationship with her father in Minnesota had waxed and waned. Sometimes, there were long periods of silence. But in recent years, Chan and her father had become close, like a “best friend,” she said.

“I could tell him literally anything, and I talked to him about everything,” Chan said. “We would have the most awkward conversations. That’s how close we were. … After talking, we realized how much alike we actually are, so it made us closer.”

In 2017, Chan’s father was deported to Cambodia. Since that time, her communication with him as been limited.

It’s a country he barely knew, she said.

Like many Cambodia refugees who survived genocide under the Khmer Rouge, Chan’s father arrived in the United States when he was young. His experience in Cambodia, she said, is one of the few things father and daughter rarely spoke of.

“He never really told me about what he went through,” Chan said. “I know he was old enough to remember the war.”

Life in a new land

Herod said job prospects — or a perceived lack of them — often weigh heavily on the minds of new deportees. Most new arrivals worry that they won’t be able to find work. The organization tries to alleviate those concerns, he said.

Of the 36 individuals who arrived last December, Herod said, “almost everybody who wanted a job got one.”

Some work teaching English, which he describes as “a very good job,” with salaries ranging from $800 to $1,200 a month in U.S. dollars. Others work in the hospitality industry, or as security guards — “starter jobs,” Herod said — that earn $150 to $180 a month.

Minimum wage in Cambodia, Herod said, is currently around $150 a month in U.S. dollars.

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Motorists navigate a street in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on April 25, 2019. Silong Chhun

Herod also said most arriving deportees worry about not speaking the language. It’s another concern the KVAO works to soothe.

“Most of them don’t read or write (Khmer). But there are very few that don’t speak any Khmer at all,” Herod said. “If they speak a little Khmer when they arrive, they pick it up quickly.”

Stuart Isett is a Seattle-based photojournalist. In 2005, three years after Cambodian refugees started being deported from the United States, he traveled to the country to photograph them.

At the time, there were roughly 100 deportees living near Phnom Penh.

“For these guys going back, it’s a very different experience,” Isett said, noting the difference that smartphones, social media and other technology has had. “When they were going back in 2005, they were completely cut off.”

“In 2005, a lot of them were just hanging around. … A lot of beer drinking, a lot of drugs, a lot of camaraderie, because they were stuck in it together. A lot of anger,” Isett said. “I imagine to them it probably felt like it was a kind of a jail, in the sense that they had been dumped in this environment that was very alien.”

Isett didn’t have direct interactions with all 100 deportees living in Cambodia at the time. Of those he did interact with, about a third was doing well, a third was somewhere in the middle and another third was “struggling.”

The News Tribune asked Chan where she thought her father fits in.

She paused, uncertain. She rarely hears from him now, she said.

“I remember that day so clearly, when he called me the first time (from Cambodia),” she recalled of the emotional phone call she received from her father. “I had never seen my dad cry. He said, ‘I’m here. I’m safe. I miss you and I want to come home.’”

“’But I know I can’t,’” Chan remembered her father saying through tears.

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