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Refugees of chaos cast out

Decades after flight, Cambodians face deportation due to crime and a lost chance at U.S. citizenship.

Hak Ouk, 58, makes a throat-cutting gesture as he describes his fate if he returns to the village he left in the 1970s. As a Cambodian soldier, Hak fought alongside U.S. troops in Vietnam. But after firing a gun during a 2000 fight at a Philadelphia Parking Authority lot, he served five months of house arrest.
Hak Ouk, 58, makes a throat-cutting gesture as he describes his fate if he returns to the village he left in the 1970s. As a Cambodian soldier, Hak fought alongside U.S. troops in Vietnam. But after firing a gun during a 2000 fight at a Philadelphia Parking Authority lot, he served five months of house arrest.Read moreGERALD S. WILLIAMS / Inquirer Staff Photographer

Mout Iv owns a barbershop in Olney. Chally Dang repairs copiers and fax machines. Hak Ouk works at a packaging company.

The U.S. government brought them to Philadelphia as refugees from Cambodia's killing fields. Now, two decades or more later, the U.S. government is threatening to deport them back - for what they did, and didn't do, here in America.

For Mout and Chally, both of whom arrived in the United States as children, Cambodia is a land they scarcely know or understand. For Hak, a generation older, Cambodia is the graveyard for his family, killed in the genocide.

This is a story about responsibility and obligation - theirs, and the government's.

With immigrants pouring into the United States, legal and illegal, it is also a cautionary tale about what happens to those from desperately poor countries who grow up in America's toughest city neighborhoods, isolated, desperate and confused.

The government's initiation of deportation proceedings against Cambodian refugees is but the latest painful chapter in America's long and tragic involvement in Southeast Asia, beginning in the 1960s with the Vietnam War.

As refugees, the Cambodians were eligible for citizenship after five years in the United States - but two-thirds have not become citizens. Thus, they remain subject to deportation laws if they commit crimes.

To date, 169 Cambodian refugees - including at least three from Philadelphia - have been deported since Cambodia signed a treaty with the United States in 2002, agreeing to accept those still legally its citizens. It was one of the last countries in the world to do so.

In Philadelphia's Cambodian community, the fourth-largest in America, the government's policy of deporting refugees with criminal records has become highly controversial, given America's role in destabilizing Cambodia and the hardships those refugees have faced since their arrival.

"They feel like they've been betrayed their whole lives," said Helly Lee, an advocate with the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center. "Coming here and being thrown in ghettos, and being in that cycle of poverty - and then to be sent back to a country they don't know."

Pat Reilly, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman, responded that U.S. law requires, without exception, the deportation of immigrants who commit crimes.

"We just enforce the laws that are on the books," she said, "and there is no special status for refugees."

Mout, Chally and Hak don't pretend to be choirboys. Mout, 30, and Chally, 25, take full responsibility for gang-related assaults they took part in when they were much younger.

Hak, 58, deeply regrets that night in February 2000 when he lost his cool at a Philadelphia Parking Authority impoundment lot and fired a gun in the air.

But their biggest mistake, it turns out, was what they didn't do: They never sought to become citizens.

"It's always in the back of your mind, to be a citizen," Mout said, "but the streets had me."

Should they now be subject to the same deportation proceedings as economic immigrants?

Leaders and advocates in the Cambodian community believe the U.S. government has a special obligation to those who came here as refugees. The Maoist-inspired Khmer Rouge regime emptied the cities, set up work camps, and killed as many as two million people in a geopolitical nightmare that the United States helped create.

They also wonder whether more could and should have been done to help Cambodian refugees navigate the citizenship process. The fact that so many Cambodians living here have not become citizens, they say, is evidence of the community's isolation, ignorance of the law, or fear of authority.

"Resources weren't available to help with the integration process. There was a lot of shock," Lee said. "Just surviving was totally different than what they were used to."

A dream deferred

If Mout had become a citizen, he would be considered a success story - someone who turned his life around in prison.

Like Mout, most of those facing deportation were children when they were brought here and thrown into an urban cauldron.

For Mout, born in 1977, Cambodia has existed only in hazy, painful memories of early childhood. Raised in the United States from the age of 9, he knows more about hip-hop and the Phillies than Khmer society and culture.

His old-school barbershop, at Front and Champlost Streets in Olney, is a shrine to Philadelphia sports: Flyers calendars and Sixers foam fingers, Phillies bobbleheads and framed front pages from the Eagles' last Super Bowl.

Standing at a barber chair, his clippers gliding through a customer's hair, Mout reflected on the path he had taken, from a sick child whose mother carried him through the Cambodian jungle to escape war and atrocity, to a homeowner and proprietor with a loyal clientele.

"I'm living the American dream," he said.

Mout can't quite believe that he owns a home and a business, just 31/2 years after getting out of prison. He gives all the credit to God.

"I went astray, but he let me go. Just like the parable of the . . .," he said, momentarily distracted.

"The prodigal son," his customer said.

It was in 1998, the day after his 21st birthday, that Mout and some friends robbed a man in Olney.

Mout served more than four years in state prison and then was held in federal immigration detention for a year pending deportation. He was set free in January 2004 under supervision, and has been waiting ever since for the Cambodian government to process his deportation papers.

Mout doesn't know when Cambodia will be ready. For now, he lives in the moment. Every six months he must report to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services at 16th and Callowhill Streets.

"I'm scared to death when I go in there because you don't know if you're going to get out," he said. "But I go because I have faith in the Lord. . . . If it happens, it happens for a reason."

Surviving the streets

The 2000 U.S. census estimated the city's Cambodian population at 6,570 people, although the Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia insists the number is three times that many.

While there have been many individual success stories, others in the community have been left isolated and needy because of poverty, lack of education, mental illness or language difficulties.

"Basically they knew how to survive in the jungle," said Rorng Sorn, an advocate at the Cambodian Association. "A lot of them, when they came into the city, they had a hard time adapting to the lifestyle."

For the children, often raising themselves, the lure of the streets was strong.

Chally, Mout's cousin, has never even set foot in Cambodia. Born in 1982 in a refugee camp in Thailand, he was an infant when his family was resettled in what he describes as a roach- and rat-infested apartment in Logan.

"Stuck us right in the 'hood," he said. "Programs that helped get us on our feet? Welfare, and not much else."

His mother was still traumatized by her experience in Cambodia's killing fields. Once in Philadelphia, she fought the ghosts of the past and found solace in drink.

With such a depressed parent, Chally ran the streets, joined a gang of Asian kids, and got arrested for burglary for the first time at age 10.

"If you're with other Cambodians, they understand you," he explained. "You can relate to each other. 'Oh, you were a refugee? I'm a refugee.' "

In 1997, when he was 15, Chally was involved in two shootings, one of them a drive-by in which he fired at a rival gang.

He was arrested that year and tried as an adult for aggravated assault. He served more than five years, then did six months of detention in Immigration Court in York, Pa.

Chally, using the jail law library, won his freedom by citing a 1996 Supreme Court decision that said deportable immigrants cannot be held indefinitely if their home countries can't take them back. The court placed a six-month limit on detention.

In prison, Chally picked up vocational skills and now works as a digital tech, repairing copiers and other office electronics. He has, he said, left his old ways behind.

No matter. Chally could now lose contact with his three children, all younger than 3, if he gets deported.

"I really want to be around until the kids get to an age that I can explain to them the way things are, the way things will be," he said. "I don't want them to be at an age when they don't understand. . . . 'Why is Daddy in another country? Does Daddy love me?' "

Defiance, resignation

Unlike Mout and Chally, Hak grew up in Cambodia. As a young man, he served in the army under Prime Minister Lon Nol, a U.S. ally. Lon Nol sent about 500 troops, including Hak, to fight in Vietnam alongside the Americans.

During the Vietnam War, the United States destabilized Cambodia with a massive bombing campaign that was aimed at North Vietnamese troops, but killed and displaced thousands of civilians. The U.S. government also supported a coup by a more pro-American regime. Historians believe both actions aided the rise of the Khmer Rouge, whose crimes the United States then largely ignored.

When the Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia and killed his mother and eight of his siblings, Hak made his way to a refugee camp in Thailand - and then to Philadelphia in 1976 as a refugee.

"I no want to come here," he said, "but you bring me here. My whole family die in Cambodia, and now I have family here. And you try to send me back?"

Hak soon became a leader of his community, helping neighbors and coworkers. He has children nearly the same age as Chally, all educated in Philadelphia's Catholic schools.

But all of his good deeds and hard work have been overshadowed by what happened one night in February 2000 at a Philadelphia Parking Authority lot near Oregon Avenue.

Hak, working as a tow-truck driver, got into a fight over a friend's car and was beaten by another driver, he said.

Hak said after he had tried in vain to get a police officer to intercede, he returned with an unregistered .45-caliber Beretta and fired two shots.

Hak insisted he had fired in the air. The other driver, who denied beating Hak, said Hak had fired at his truck.

In the end, Hak served five months of house arrest for aggravated assault.

Hak believes the United States, in seeking now to deport him, is being unfair. "I fought for the American Army for three years," he said. "I'm lucky I didn't die. If I didn't go to Vietnam War, I never come here, no way."

In an interview at his South Philadelphia home, Hak alternated between defiance and resignation.

"Two more years and I'll hit 60," he said at one point. "If they want to send me back, OK. I want to stay at least two, three more years, and OK."

He said he hoped he could see his youngest son, 17-year-old David, get his diploma. "That's what I tell my lawyer: 'Just help me until my three boys finish high school, then I go,' " Hak said.

But while most returnees are troubled by the uncertainty and separation of deportation, Hak's fears run deeper.

"I go to my town, maybe they kill me," he said. "My town all Khmer Rouge."


Refugees find deportation a shock to the system: theirs and Cambodia's.