Cambodian Americans Exiled in New Film, Sentenced Home

Susan Gerhard March 20, 2006

Spencer Nakasako’s seminal 1995 video-diary-style documentary, “a.k.a. Don Bonus,” ends on a triumphant note. Don, a Cambodian refugee teenager also known as Sokly Ny, makes his way past life in the projects, burglaries, bureaucracies, multiple bus rides to school, English tests, as well as memories of what Vietnam War did to his family, and graduates into the next stage of his life in an uncertain urban America. It’s a miracle he survived. Eleven years later, filmmakers Nicole Newnham and David Grabias catch up with Cambodian immigrants who grew up not too differently from Ny in another urban center of the West Coast, but, instead of graduating into the next stage, find themselves being led back to their troubled pasts.

“Sentenced Home” follows three Cambodian American men from Seattle who broke the law in their late teens, served time in prison, and thought they were getting on with their lives – until they received letters from the government informing them that, because of their criminal records, and in spite of time served, they would soon be deported back to Cambodia. I got to speak with Grabias, Newnham, and Many Uch, the only one of the three Cambodian men who’s still waiting to be forcibly returned, at the same San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival where Nakasako’s work has found a home.

SF360: Is your father in Cambodia? Were you in touch with him growing up?

Many Uch: Yes, he’s in Cambodia, but no, we’re not in touch at all. It was a struggle growing up, why worry about your dad when you have your mom…? I know where he lives at all time, but I choose not to talk or write to him, because he’s just my dad only by blood, not by taking care of me.

SF360: Why did you separate?

Uch: In 1979, when the Vietnamese army invaded Cambodia to take over the Khmer Rouge, we were forced by the Khmer Rouge to go along with them. My dad said, ‘no I wanna see the country where we’re at, see if our house still exists.’ When my dad left, probably a day or two later, the Vietnamese army just pushed the Khmer Rouge army. The Khmer Rouge army kidnapped these hundreds of people into the jungle. My mom thought my dad died; my dad thought my mom died, because there was not any contact. Because at that time, we were stuck in the jungle after the killing field already. They didn’t want us to go to the country, because of the Vietnamese occupation… People were dying. The army got smaller and smaller. We spent so many months, most of a year in the jungle with no food. The army was just depleted, so few were able to escape. Most were captives. That’s how we ended up in a refugee camp.

SF360: Where did you first land here?

Uch: It was in Richmond, Virginia. We lived there for almost a year. We had relatives in Seattle, so we decided to get on the Greyhound and move there.

SF360: After the screening during the Q&A, you said your plan is to not have a plan, in terms of going back to Cambodia, if you are eventually deported.

Uch: I have to see what it’s like by being over there. What’s the best thing for me? I go there and see what’s wrong with the country and have a hand in it? Or just be myself and take care of my business. Maybe I have to teach English. Maybe I have to teach baseball. That’s how I look at it.

SF360: What happened with the baseball team you were coaching here?

Uch: [laughs]. The second year, they imposed a three-out rule. If I throw seven bad pitches to my kids, then they’re out automatically. [Usually] if you can’t hit it, you get to walk the kid; just to teach the kids the game, not to make it competitive.

SF360: The baseball scene in movie shows you instructing the kids on taking off their hats and placing them on their chests for the US National Anthem. What are your own feelings when that song is playing?

Uch: I have to have authority over my kids, during a game, not during a game… What was going through my mind during the National Anthem was ‘Wow,’ finally, my people have a team to watch. These kids. I did it. And it’s a big accomplishment for me, my community.

Nicole Newnham: I was working on National Geographic show called “Skin” for PBS; it was about the science and culture of human skin. We were doing a thing about gang tattoo removal and one of the doctors we were following was donating his time for tattoo removal for some former gang members in exchange for community service. And these kids were part of the Cambodian American community in Lowell, Massachusetts, and their families were just getting [deportation] letters at the time. They’d signed this repatriation agreement and the deportations were going to start happening soon. The whole community was really upset. I happened to just be around to witness their shock, and it was compelling. It made me really intrigued. One of the community members begged me; why are you making a film about gang tattoos? Why don’t you make a film about this? Nobody seems to care about this. So I thought about it for awhile and I called David.

SF360: How many deportations of Cambodians have happened so far?

David Grabias: Many was saying 141.

Uch: I have to check on my website.

SF360: Your website

Grabias: 141 so far, and there are somewhere around 1,500 on a list to be deported. The stat is 78,000 criminal aliens are deported every year.

SF360: Can the deportable crime be as small a crime as shoplifting?

Newnham: Yeah, it can – if it’s more than once. That’s my understanding. Actually, one of the most egregious cases is this guy who was deported for public urination, because in Texas, if you’re convicted for public urination more than once, it’s considered to be a sex crime, and a sex crime is considered to be an aggravated felony, which is deportable. This guy was working on a road crew in Texas. He had the most amazing story about having come here and was pretty much abandoned by his parents, and raised himself. He was a great guy. And there was no place to pee where he was working.

SF360: How are the three young men in your film making it in Cambodia now?

Grabias: I think it’s a long process. Kim Ho went through – and still is going through -struggles in terms of coming to terms with his place there and identity there. Loeun; in some ways had the opposite experience. Leon had the support of his family and kids and wife in the states. Whereas Kim did not have that. And now, 2 and 1/2 years later, the bonds with his family are slowly becoming less tight. That’s becoming a struggle for him to maintain those relationships. On the other side, Kim Ho ended up marrying this girl in the countryside and, to some degree, embracing his life there.

Newnham: It’s like Greek exile. If you study Greek tragedy, the worst tragedy you can give is exile. Loeun is living like he’s in exile, talking to his kids everyday. It’s just too much for a human being to stand. Whereas Kim Ho Ma still has that, because he’s separated from his mother and his brother – he definitely suffers from that – but I think by getting married and starting a new life, he’s maybe got a little bit more that he can hold on to there.

SF360: Do you think there’s anything about the timing of arrival of different waves of immigrants that affected the ways different they coped, adjusted, assimilated?

Newnham: It seems to me that when Many was growing up, “gang” culture was at its zenith.

Uch: My take on it is you have this group of refugees who doesn’t speak English, in low-income housing. You get here, you get a low-wage job. You move to the projects to make it, the welfare system kicks in being in the projects. The surrounding is rough. I don’t think most of us were living a peaceful life; there’s always trouble around there. They didn’t take into consideration being traumatized by the Khmer Rouge. When you settle here, you have families to worry about in Cambodia. Are they alive or not. At the same time are you concentrated n work or raising the kids?

Grabias: Someone just sent me a study they did in Long Beach, with Cambodian refugees. Something like 75 percent of the older generation, who were adults when they arrived, suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder: didn’t sleep, had nightmares, had substance abuse issues, violence issues. That obviously impacts the kids, how they’re raised. No one took that into account when they resettled the Cambodian population.

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