(MCC photo/Rachel Bergen) 

Chhaiya Chhamm, right, was deported from the U.S. to Cambodia because of a crime he committed. Although Chhamm’s parents were from Cambodia and came to the U.S. as refugees, Chhamm has never lived in Cambodia nor does he know the language. Villa Kem, co-director of Returnee Integration Support Center, an MCC partner, is helping him to adjust to his new country.

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Last fall 26-year-old Chhaiya Chhamm left Denver, Colo., to live in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

It wasn’t by choice, though.

While living in the U.S., Chhamm was charged with driving under the influence of alcohol and evading arrest when he was a teenager. The young man spent three years behind bars, did another three years of probation, and nine months later was deported to Cambodia – a country he never called home.

Chhamm is technically a citizen of Cambodia. His Cambodian mother gave birth to him in a Thai refugee camp where she fled after the Killing Fields era of the Khmer Rouge. The family received sponsorship from an American church to move to Denver in the early 1990s.

The U.S. is all Chhamm has known for his whole life, but he never became a full citizen. 

Lack of citizenship worked against him because a U.S. law allows noncitizens to be deported if they commit a felony, three misdemeanors or any crime for which the sentence is more than one year in prison.

Chhamm is one of 10 people who were deported to Cambodia in October 2015, joining 477 so-called “returnees.” The transition hasn’t been easy. He has no family in Cambodia and feels very isolated and depressed.

It’s been a fight for survival as soon as they dropped me off here."

- Chhaiya Chhamm, returnee

One organization that Chhamm could turn to was the Returnee Integration Support Center (RISC), a Cambodian organization in Phnom Penh that helps people in Chhamm’s situation adjust to living in Cambodia.

Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) has partnered with RISC since 2002. MCC Cambodia country representative Derek Hostetler said it’s the only organization in the entire country that supports deported individuals from the U.S.

“Without RISC these people would arrive in a country with zero documentation, no resources, know no one and often no language skills,” said Hostetler. He and his wife, Leakhena So, also an MCC representative, are from Portland, Oregon.

“The returnees are being punished twice for a crime,” Derek Hostetler added. “MCC continues to support the work of RISC as we envision communities worldwide in right relationships with God and one another.”

Now, more than 500 returnees are being supported by RISC.

Supporting the vulnerable

Villa Kem, the co-director of RISC, believes deportation is a harsh punishment on top of completing a prison term, and it places returnees in a more vulnerable place.

Kem said some of the returnees waited as long as 10 years after their sentence was completed before they were deported. During that time they built a new life and a family. Then it was all taken away.

“Some returnees have wives and kids in the States. When they come here, they’re by themselves. Some of them are the main financial supporters of the family. It affects the returnee and their family in the U.S. too,” he explained.

“It’s harsh. It’s a harsh situation for an individual to go through,” Kem said.

"Without RISC these people would arrive in a country with zero documentation, no resources, know no one and often no language skills."

- Derek Hostetler, MCC Cambodia representative

The Cambodian community doesn’t make it easy for them either.

“They tend to look at the returnees as outsiders because they don’t fit in with the traditional culture and they don’t speak the language,” Kem said.

Chhamm said he’s experienced this rejection first-hand as he’s tried to fit in with the locals.

“They look down on us. They look at us in a different way,” he said.

Still, Kem and the RISC team are committed to helping returnees integrate.

RISC helps sponsor returnees if they don’t have family to do so. It also provides country orientation, temporary housing and a food stipend, education grants, and help to acquire the necessary paperwork for government-issued identification.

After the returnees set off on their own, RISC staff do follow-up visits all over the country, even in drug rehabilitation centers and prisons. A few of the returnees have mental disabilities or mental health problems and are homeless. RISC helps them access food and shelter.

Hope for the future

Chhamm lived in the RISC offices with six other returnees for a month, until he got on his feet.

“It helps to be around other returnees,” he said. “We’re all here together for the same reason, so we can help each other.”

In spite of the struggle to integrate, many returnees become success stories, Kem said.

"I just hope to be successful here, that I can pick up this language and learn how to communicate with people here."

- Chhaiya Chhamm, returnee

He said RISC was founded on the belief that every individual deserves a second chance and a new life.

RISC offers educational grants so returnees can go back to school and start a career here. Some returnees go on to work in the trades or in the private sector, but the great majority work as English teachers.

Chhamm hopes to be a success story, too. When he first arrived he worked as a security guard at a nearby club and began learning how to teach English, too.

 "I just hope to be successful here, that I can pick up this language and learn how to communicate with people here."

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