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Adjusting to a Cambodia their people once fled

U.S. deportees are struggling in Cambodia.

Mel Kosol, in Cambodia. He grew up at Sixth and Jackson, where his refugee family settled. Involved in a shooting and lacking citizenship, he was deported.
Mel Kosol, in Cambodia. He grew up at Sixth and Jackson, where his refugee family settled. Involved in a shooting and lacking citizenship, he was deported.Read more

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia - Bun Bong pulls up on a Yamaha dirt bike twice as big and many times more powerful than the mopeds typical Cambodians drive on this capital's chaotic streets.

But Bun, tattooed and menacing in the way of the American inner city gangster, is no typical Cambodian.

He is among a small but growing number of political refugees who were accepted into the United States as children in the 1980s, years after their families fled the war and starvation of the Khmer Rouge genocide, only to be deported back to Cambodia for committing adult crimes in America.

The gangsta culture embodied by Bun and some of the others makes them pariahs in this poor, hierarchical, Buddhist nation - a nation that the "returnees," as they're known, barely remember and can scarcely understand.

The reaction here to Bun's appearance, with his baggy clothes and Rasheed Wallace baseball cap, speaks volumes about the fascination with - and a revulsion for - American popular culture.

Bun said the locals called out to him, mockingly, "Yo, yo," and called him "deejay" because they assume he's a rapper. He does little to discourage those notions.

"I can't put on no small shirt, no small pants," said Bun, 27. "They say, 'These guys went to heaven, but they didn't know how to act in heaven, so they got sent back to hell.' "

The returnees' odyssey also underscores just how unprepared everyone here - the Cambodian government, nongovernmental aid organizations, and the returnees themselves - was for this new reality.

The returnees' criminal histories undoubtedly do more to bolster the argument for returning Cambodians than not, especially when sympathies in the United States run low for immigrants who commit crimes.

But those who advocate for the 169 returnees here, and for the Cambodian refugees still facing deportation in the United States, say there should be some leeway in America's rigid deportation law. It makes no distinction between refugees, who were brought to the United States fleeing war and oppression, and immigrants who come seeking economic opportunity, often illegally.

This is especially true for Cambodian refugees, they maintain, in light of America's role in destabilizing Cambodia during the Vietnam War. As many as two million Cambodians died in a genocide that ensued when the Maoist-inspired Khmer Rouge took power from 1975 to 1979 and triggered the Cambodian diaspora.

While advocates have begun lobbying Congress for relief, immigration officials remain unmoved. "What we like to say is that it's a land of opportunity, but it's also a land of laws," said Pat Reilly, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman. "If you break the laws, you lose the opportunity."

The returnees find themselves back in Cambodia because they were among the two-thirds of Cambodian refugees in America who never applied for U.S. citizenship, which would have shielded them from deportation.

Bun left his family in Richmond, Va., and came to Philadelphia to live with an older brother as a teenager. He spent his teens dealing drugs in South Philadelphia. His friend and fellow returnee Mel Kosol, 32, whose family settled at Sixth and Jackson, ran with a neighborhood gang and was convicted in a shooting at age 15.

Bun and Mel were among the first refugees deported to Cambodia in 2003, both for gun-related crimes. Both had histories of violence that spoke to the tough neighborhoods where Cambodian refugees were resettled. Since most arrived in the 1980s, there have been individual success stories, but the community has struggled with extreme poverty, isolation, mental illness, high dropout rates, unemployment and substance abuse.

In Phnom Penh, Cambodian authorities immediately jailed Bun and Mel until they paid nominal bribes - $10 in Bun's case.

They were eventually released into a country as foreign to them as any other. Bun's only memories of his native land were vague impressions of air-raid sirens.

"I didn't know nothing about Cambodia. I was shocked, man. I was scared," Mel said. "I was, like . . . they got mosquitoes, no AC, no flush toilets."

Both men tried to live with relatives in the countryside - Bun in Siem Reap and Mel in Battambong province. Rural Cambodia is one of the poorest places on earth, where villagers live on subsistence farming. Bun and Mel were as unprepared for those conditions as their parents were for the United States.

"I can't stay in the country. It smells . . .," Mel said. "And the water from the lake - I take a shower and I get itchy."

Back in Phnom Penh, both have taken steps to assimilate and are now employed, Bun at a center for addicts, and Mel for a program that works with returnees.

Because relatives can send them American dollars, they and their fellow returnees are considered rich in such a poor country, where a third of the people live on less than 50 cents a day. Bun rented a two-story apartment for $65 a month. Mel was living in a $25-a-month room.

Given these relative advantages, both also have married Khmer women and fathered children.

Bun met his wife, Oeur Chomnan, 26, over cards. He used to go to her house to gamble with her father and uncles. After a few months of flirting, he had his parents in the United States call her parents in Phnom Penh to ask for her hand.

"I know the traditions," Bun said. "They accepted me."

A neighbor asked Oeur Chomnan's mother why on earth she would let her daughter marry such a man.

"I told my mom, 'Ignore them. Nobody is perfect,' " Oeur Chomnan said through a translator.

She likes that Bun is not like other Khmer men.

"He meets a rich and powerful guy, he never bows down," she said. "He doesn't care. I like that. I don't like a coward."

Indeed, Bun's and Mel's clash with the country's Buddhist ethos could not have been more severe.

For Bill Herod, an American minister who has been working with the returnees since the first group arrived, Bun's Yamaha dirt bike is a symbol of their unwillingness to adapt to Cambodian society.

"They're here, depressed, angry, alienated, jobless, homeless - it goes on and on," he said. ". . . A lot of them get into drugs and alcohol heavily. That's a big problem. They're regarded as Khmer, but they're not Khmer socially. You get these enormous misunderstandings."

While some returnees adapt to life in Cambodia and lead somewhat normal lives, Herod estimated that a third were "failing miserably."

More troublesome, Herod said, is that the returnees ignore customs that require a certain deference, especially to women and authority figures - traits not common in tough U.S. neighborhoods.

The easy availability of cheap drugs and sex, through the thriving prostitute trade, also presents a problem. Herod said Bun, Mel, and other early returnees had torn through numerous bars near his guest house until they had been kicked out of every one except the ironically named Sweet Home.

George Ellis, an American psychologist who worked with returnees here under a contract from the U.S. Agency for International Development, said many of the returnees "haven't accepted psychologically that they're here forever."

"The first big state is betrayal, that feeling of being victimized," he said. "A lot of the guys are not doing very well. They never left that stage."

Their situation is made more difficult, he said, by the symbols of their former lives, such as tattoos, which some Cambodians consider a sign of disgraceful thuggery. One returnee, Ellis said, has a chest tattoo of a couple having sex.

Chen Sokheang, a 25-year-old Cambodian woman, said she couldn't help but notice the tattoos on a returnee she had come in contact with. "I kind of freaked out when I saw those tattoos," she said.

Mel embodies the defiance that many returnees cannot leave behind. After a traffic argument on Phnom Penh's teeming streets, he recalled, he bashed a soldier in the face.

"He's lucky he's alive. I hit him soft - that's why his jaw broke," Mel said with cold bravado. "I hit him hard, he'd be dead."

Another time, a local gangster with a butcher knife tried to collect a debt from one of Mel's friends. Mel paid him a visit.

"I put a gun in his mouth," he said. "Then I start thinking I'm doing wrong. I should go talk to them nicely, see what happened. But I don't think like that. I think violent."

Despite these confrontation, Mel said he had not faced the inside of a Cambodian prison - unlike some returnees. In the fall of 2006, seven of them were locked up for various reasons.

"Before, the first time in Cambodia, you're like, 'I can't stay here,' " Mel said. "I don't care anymore. I'm used to it."

Bun hasn't been so lucky. He spent 31/2 months in a wretched cell, eating a cup of rice and soup every day, after he was charged with murder.

Although he denies any involvement, a man was stabbed during a brawl at the wedding of one of Bun's Cambodian cousins. Bun was charged with three other returnees and a local Cambodian.

"We didn't kill him," Bun said. "I saw him drop before I even touched him."

Bun said his family in Richmond had to pay $27,000 to get him out of prison.

"I got sick," he said. "But it all worked out. If you got family and money, it's cool."

Bun arrived for an interview at Herod's guest house on his Yamaha. He climbed off the bike with a limp, left over from a nasty crash six weeks earlier. It was the second time he had nearly been killed on his high-powered motorcycle.

He pulled up his baggy jeans to reveal horrific, swollen gashes along his shin and thigh. But he shrugged off any concern for his well-being.

"I'm used to Cambodia now," Bun said. "I don't know about the States anymore. If I go back to the States, I'd do the same thing - sell more drugs."

After the interview at Herod's house, Bun limped back to his motorcycle. As he tried to kick-start the engine, the bike listed toward his injured leg. Unable to put weight on his limb, Bun tumbled, and the bike crashed to the pavement.

Bun simply laughed, awkwardly, and got back aboard.

Herod, watching, could only shake his head as Bun roared into traffic.

Also read "Echoes of the Killing Fields," a three-part series that examines how Cambodians are adjusting as refugees and follows a man who seeks his long-lost brother back home: