Imagine being deported to a country you have never visited, where you don’t speak the language and may know little of the customs.
That’s what happened to 26-year-old Chhaiya Chhamm.
Technically a citizen of Cambodia, Chhamm was born in a Thai refugee camp after his mother fled from the Khmer Rouge. Sponsored by a U.S. church, Chhamm and his family moved to Denver, Colorado, in the early 1990s. He considered the U.S. his home.
But as a teenager, he was charged with driving under the influence of alcohol and evading arrest. After spending three years behind bars and another three on probation, he was deported to Cambodia.
A U.S. law allows noncitizens to be expelled if they commit a felony, three misdemeanors or any crime for which the sentence is more than one year in prison. There are more than 500 returnees in Cambodia, according to the Returnee Integration Support Centre (RISC) in Phnom Penh, and that number is growing.
MCC supports the work of RISC to help returnees find their way in Cambodia. The center provides country orientation, temporary housing, food stipends, help to acquire the necessary paperwork for government-issued identification and educational grants so returnees can go back to school and start a career in Cambodia.
Some go on to work in the trades or in the private sector, but the great majority work as English teachers. Chhamm, right, shown with RISC co-director Villa Kem, started work as a security guard at a nearby club recently and wants 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,” he says.