San Tran Croucher’s earliest memories are of fleeing ethnic attacks in her Vietnamese village, only to be later tortured in Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge. Katya Cengel met San when San was seventy-five years old and living in California, having miraculously survived the Cambodian genocide with her three daughters, Sithy, Sithea, and Jennifer. But San’s family’s troubles didn’t end after their resettlement in California. As a teenager under the Khmer Rouge, San’s daughter Sithy had been the family’s savior, the strong one who learned how to steal food to keep them alive. In the United States, Sithy’s survival skills were best suited for a life of crime, and she was eventually jailed for drug possession. U.S. immigration law enforces deportation of any immigrant or refugee who is found guilty of certain illegal activities, and San has hired a lawyer to fight Sithy’s deportation case. Only time will tell if they are successful. In Exiled Cengel follows the stories of four Cambodian families, including San’s, as they confront criminal deportation forty years after their resettlement in the United States. Weaving together these stories into a single narrative, Cengel finds that violence comes in many forms and that trauma is passed down through generations. With no easy answers, Cengel reveals a cycle of violence, followed by safety, and then loss.
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About the Author
Katya Cengel is a freelance writer based in San Luis Obispo, California, and lectures in the Journalism Department of California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. She was a features and news writer for the Louisville Courier-Journal from 2003 to 2011 and has reported from North and Central America, Europe, Asia, and Africa. Her work has appeared in New York Times Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, Marie Claire, and Newsweek. She is the author of Bluegrass Baseball: A Year in the Minor League Life (Nebraska, 2012).
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THE DIPLOMAT AND THE DEPORTEE
They were all youngish, in their thirties and forties, and all men. All people he used to know. They didn't tell him their crimes, and he didn't ask. All they told him was that they were on the list to be deported to Cambodia. Then they asked for his help.
They sought him out because he used to be like them, a tough, streetwise, bad boy. But now he had his own picture-framing business next to a nail salon and a cluster of other small shops on a busy corner in Long Beach, California. Inside the one-story brick building, he was surrounded by a history different from his own in hundreds of historical photos of Long Beach; they were quaint black-and-white beach scenes from the previous century, including one of a smartly dressed fire chief and his staff headed to work in an early automobile. It wasn't the Long Beach Chanphirun Meanowuth Min knew, but it was the Long Beach he sold. Then there were the custom framing jobs he did: abstract paintings, athletic jerseys, American flags. This was his life now. The men who came in off the street asking for help did not belong in it.
But it hadn't been that long since Chanphirun had been a part of their world. Like them, he had been a convicted noncitizen felon on the list to be deported. That was in 2003, early on, just after the deportations became a reality. Only Chanphirun had been allowed to stay. They wanted to know how. He told them the first thing that came to mind: "Get down on your knees and pray."
He remembers telling them to pray a lot and to try not to get in any more trouble. Become a good person. Do what I did, and, just maybe, there will be a miracle. If you are lucky, it will work at the very last minute, as it did for me, and you won't be deported to a land you haven't known for decades, a land your families fled, often before you were old enough to remember.
He never saw them again. They vanished, swallowed by the streets from which they had emerged. That was a decade ago. They don't come anymore. Maybe they are okay. Maybe they are in trouble again. Chanphirun doesn't know. He doesn't want to. He has a wife and son now.
In early 2015 he is fifty-six, although he looks younger, is still trim and fit, and is dressed stylishly but not outlandishly. He has black tortoiseshell glasses and wears tight shirts that reveal his flesh has yet to soften and sag. He has a thick accent but not so thick that he can't be understood. A photo of his wife and son decorate his office.
One wrong move and he could lose it all: the wife he met on the internet, the four-year-old son he plays Power Rangers with, the framing shop he used to work at and now owns. If he gets in trouble with the law, he could be deported to the country he fled decades ago. In his nightmares he sees it vividly — Cambodia.
Sometimes he is in the jungle. Sometimes there is a firing squad with soldiers. Sometimes he is in the city. In the last scene he is wandering, trying to find his family — not his wife and son but the family he lost after he came to the United States in 1975, just months before the country fell to the Khmer Rouge: his mother, his father, and his four sisters. The family who had been leaders in the previous U.S.-backed government, which was overthrown when the communist Khmer Rouge took control. The family who had sent him to Washington DC, promising they would be right behind him.
They weren't. Other Cambodians came, refugees of the regime under which almost a quarter of the country's population died.
The refugees sought Chanphirun out, wanting him to know his family's fate. They wanted him to know they were really sorry. They told him his uncle Lon Non (not to be confused with Lon Nol) had been beheaded and his parents slaughtered. They didn't say anything about his sisters, the older one or the three younger ones. They didn't have to. He knew they were dead. A family such as his did not survive the Khmer Rouge. He was alive only because they had sent him away.
He was nineteen. His past had been erased. His future was empty. Too timid to kill himself but lacking the will to live, he got into drugs: marijuana, cocaine, speed, quaaludes. He did time for reckless driving, driving under the influence, and selling drugs. In 2001 he was convicted for trying to defraud Medi-Cal (the California Medical Assistance Program) by selling blood and stolen medical identification cards and was ordered to pay $25,000 in restitution and to spend sixteen months in prison. Two years later he was on the list of convicted U.S. legal permanent resident Cambodian felons to be deported to Cambodia.
But because of who he was, and who his uncle had been — Lon Non's brother, Lon Nol, the prime minister of Cambodia before the Khmer Rouge took over — Chanphirun was not returned to Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge were no longer in power, but those in the government at the time had close links to the previous rulers. A former Cambodian government official testified that Chanphirun would likely face torture or worse if he was sent back to Cambodia. Chanphirun was not deported, but as a convicted felon, he is no longer eligible for citizenship and thus is still deportable should he face further legal troubles. The man who saved him from deportation in 2003 was the same man who helped fly his uncle Lon Nol out of Cambodia days before it fell to the communists in 1975 — Song Chhang.
Song chuckles when I ask him how he convinced an American judge not to deport Chanphirun. "I tell them a story," he says.
It is several hours before he returns to that story. In the meantime, he tells me half a dozen other stories. The story of how he helped Lon Nol escape Phnom Penh days before the city fell. The story of his return to his native village half a century after he left. The story of nine CBS and NBC journalists killed during the civil war.
He talks over the noise of the city drifting in through his open window — the ubiquitous leaf blowers of Southern California and the sounds of traffic coming from the busy Long Beach intersection below. A seventy-five-year-old man with the physical reminders of a recent stroke, Song is a storyteller who understands he doesn't have a whole lot of time left to talk.
"I was born in a poor village," he begins. "Nothing different [from] an African village, except we not that black."
He smiles playfully. A white-haired man with swollen, almost lifeless legs, Song has little: no car, no wife, not much of a relationship with his grown children. He isn't bitter, merely realistic.
"I learn that term 'decrepit,'" he says. "I say, 'I'm old, I'm handicapped, but I am not decrepit,' yet."
He came from little, and that is most likely how he will leave this world. In between, there was more. In the early 1950s he left his little river village to attend the French high school five miles away. It wasn't far, but it was far enough that poor village children lacking transportation didn't go home once they left for high school. Instead, they lived in the "French Village," small bamboo barracks they built next to their French teachers' bungalows. The French were still clinging to power in the region, and at night Song and his companions would study the French Revolution while fishing for their dinner. Those same friends later went on to serve in the government that replaced the French one. Song served beside them. He was the minister of information in Lon Nol's pro-American military government before the country fell to the communists. Others from their school became leaders in the Khmer Rouge, the communists. Khieu Samphan was one of them. Song remembers the former Khmer Rouge head of state telling him that he had chased the Vietnamese out of Cambodia. Song replied, "We tried to chase Vietnamese. You kill us."
Song chuckles again. It is easy to do from the safety of his second-story apartment. The United States is his home now; it has been for decades. He sees Cambodia on visits, as he did in December 2014, when he returned to his childhood village for the first time in more than half a century.
He found his relatives telling stories, the same stories they were telling when he left. It was as if nothing had changed. But so much had. The French were gone. The Americans had come, bombed the country, and gone. The Khmer Rouge had come, committed mass murder, and gone underground. The Vietnamese had come and bombed, but they were still around.
Song experienced the changes from outside the village: first in a provincial town, then in the country's capital of Phnom Penh, and finally in the United States. His relatives experienced the changes from within. Which group was dropping the bombs made little difference; all they knew was that the fighting had taken the lives of many in their village. Communists, American-backed governments, French rulers — all had fought over the land they called home. The Khmer Rouge ruled for a time. Now there was someone different.
They chided Song for not being there to help them when the Khmer Rouge came. They blamed him for the bombs that were dropped on them, even though he told them he had nothing to do with that. It didn't matter. He had been the most powerful person they knew, so they held him responsible. Song asked if the Khmer Rouge had come looking for him.
"Oh yeah, they ask for you all the time. Anybody related to you would be killed," his cousins told him.
"Why you not killed?" Song wanted to know.
"Because we good people. Because we join the Khmer Rouge."
The Khmer Rouge came to their village looking for recruits. The recruits were told they would be fighting the people who had bombed them. They joined because Song wasn't there to protect them, and they wanted to survive. By staying put, his relatives in the village were forced to change. Song changed by leaving.
The first time he left his country was to study at Louisiana State University (LSU) in 1962. Song chose LSU because of the location's French connection. A product of his country's former French rulers, Song speaks French and writes French poetry. He considers himself a specialist in French literature and brags that as an undergraduate student at LSU, he instructed graduate students in French literature. His own major was agriculture. His passport to America was a United States Agency for International Development (USAID) program that provided funding for Cambodian students to study agriculture and technology in the United States and was largely responsible for what little Cambodian migration there was to the country at the time. Crawfish, beer, and a white girlfriend followed.
Song returned to Cambodia in 1968. He worked for King Norodom Sihanouk until the king was ousted. Lon Nol took over, and Song enlisted in the Cambodian military. Within the military and larger government, his English skills earned him rapid promotions, and soon he was a spokesman for the military and then minister of information for the Khmer Republic. It all happened very, very quickly.
The downfall happened almost as quickly, so quickly he never had time to tell his mother he was leaving his homeland. He thought he would be back in three months. Instead, it was fifteen years before he was able to return.
There were signs, of course. There always are. In 1970 Song was supposed to travel with a team of nine CBS and NBC television journalists to his childhood province. He had agreed to help them in their reporting on the killings being done by the Khmer Rouge. As a military press briefer, Song spent much of his time hanging around journalists. Too much time, probably. The night before he was supposed to travel with them, he became very drunk. He overslept the next morning, and the journalists went without him. They never came back. All nine were killed — four by a rocket-powered grenade, the rest beaten to death by the Khmer Rouge.
While holding a female journalist Song knew captive, the Khmer Rouge asked her why the Vietnamese received more favorable press coverage than the Khmer Rouge did. She told them it was because the Vietnamese released their captured journalists; the Khmer Rouge killed them. They ended up letting her go. For the nine who died, Song planted a tree in Phnom Penh in their memory. He helps arrange and attends reunions of the old war correspondents. Their numbers are dwindling now, not because of war, but because of age, the one killer no one escapes. Justice, if there is any, is now finding the Khmer Rouge for the most part not in the courts but in failing bodies and minds. Song is lucky enough to suffer the same fate, having escaped the Khmer Rouge on April Fool's Day 1975. It was a Tuesday.
For three months the Khmer Rouge had been blasting the capital of the Khmer Republic with rockets and artillery. Major highways were blocked, and access to the Mekong River, which was the conduit for most of the food, ammunition, and petrol supplies for the capital, had been cut. Political infighting and corruption plagued the Lon Nol government, and civilian and military branches fought each other daily. The plan to remove Lon Nol from the country was hatched in secrecy. A week before it happened, Song was appointed ambassador at-large. It was his job to work on a peace settlement. Getting Lon Nol out of the country seemed a good place to start; it would take away one of the excuses the Khmer Rouge might use for not agreeing to a peace deal. That is what Song believed. Others believed it was a way to ease Lon Nol out of leadership. Still others thought the president was leaving for a medical checkup with his American doctors. Song came up with the phrase "smooth and orderly transfer of power" to describe the whole operation. And it was smooth: before leaving, Lon Nol officially gave Senate chairman Sokham Khoy the power to act as president pro tempore of the Khmer Republic.
Lon Nol left his country with tears in his eyes. Song left with a small suitcase of clothes, photos, and notes. Before boarding the helicopter, he greeted government officials who would not be going. Some winked, others cried. The rest simply got on with their work. Song spent more time with the president's brother, Gen. Lon Non. He told him about the travel plans that would take those leaving first to Bali, Indonesia, aboard a helicopter and then to Honolulu, Hawaii, aboard a U.S. Air Force jet. Lon Non was Chanphirun's unlucky uncle, the one who didn't make it out, the one who was beheaded.
Just before they left, Song's former military chief briefer reached out to him. "He got us all to rise up and fight," the man said of Lon Nol. "Now he's deserting us."
In a way, the same could have been said of Song.
About five thousand Cambodians — most of them members of the military, diplomats, and those already outside the country — were evacuated to the United States around the same time. They would become early leaders among the Cambodian diaspora and, along with the few Cambodians already in the country, would play a role in advocating for the large number of Cambodian refugees that followed. Song was among those who helped.
"I was not a lobbyist," he says. "I just talk to people."
It is a talent that has not diminished with age and that was well honed from his time serving as an information minister. He knew how to bring attention to an issue and fill a press conference. Invitations to U.S. Senate meetings followed. He spoke with senators in Kansas City and New York City. He told a Jewish congressman that the genocide in Cambodia was like the Holocaust. The senator was not convinced. Song provided his reasoning.
It was 1977, halfway into the brutal Khmer Rouge regime that would result in the deaths of around two million people. Pol Pot, the regime's leader, forced Cambodians to work on communal farms in the countryside. Execution, starvation, and disease killed whole segments of the population. Money, private property, and religion were abolished and the date set back to Year Zero. Wearing glasses or otherwise showing supposed signs of education could get you killed. Some managed to escape to Thailand, and Song was advocating on their behalf.
His arguments worked. Soon the Jewish community was asking him to give talks. He was invited to speak on the radio, to attend more meetings. Something, maybe everything, was having an effect. In 1979 the Khmer Rouge were forced from power, and many more refugees flooded Thailand. Due in part to the efforts of Cambodians living in the United States like Song, and news about the growing humanitarian and refugee crisis in Southeast Asia, the United States passed the 1980 Refugee Act. By the time the official U.S. Cambodian refugee program ended in 1994, more than 150,000 Cambodians had been admitted, with the majority of them as refugees.
Getting them admitted was the first part. The second part was resettlement. The several thousand Cambodians originally admitted were initially sent to empty military bases, including Camp Pendleton near Long Beach, California. The few Cambodians living in the region, some of whom were former participants in the usaid college program Song took part in, helped the refugees resettle. In this way those at Camp Pendleton were brought to Long Beach, thanks to the existing Cambodian community willing to sponsor them. Efforts were later made to resettle the refugees in different areas, hoping that by dispersing them throughout the country they would more easily assimilate. But many of those sent elsewhere made their way to Long Beach, an area with an established Cambodian community, a warm climate, entry-level jobs, and relatively inexpensive housing.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Exiled"
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations Preface Complete Cast of Characters Introduction Part 1. Year Zero 1. The Diplomat and the Deportee 2. “It Was a Massacre” 3. The Mother 4. The Murderer 5. Sithy and Sithea 6. “It’s Not What You Think” 7. The Wife without a Husband 8. Stealing from the Dead Part 2. Limbo 9. The Father 10. An Education in Silence 11. A Second Chance 12. The Medicine Man 13. Expired 14. “Not Home for the Holidays” 15. Never-Ending Nightmare Part 3. Year of the Monkey 16. Two Cities Tangled Together 17. New Year, Same Past 18. Girlfriends 19. A Party at Oak Park 20. Judgment Day Part 4. Years to Come 21. Blood-Killer 22. The Pastor 23. Friends and Family 24. Exile 25. Left Behind Afterword Acknowledgments Appendix Sources Index