Putting a face to the numbers

Public forum exposes Cambodian community’s deportation challenges

Sebastian Echeverry | Signal Tribune
Alisha Sim (left) spoke about the medical and financial hardships her family undergoes as well as the deportation of her brother back to Cambodia during a community forum, hosted on Dec. 9, called “Not Home for the Holidays.”

As the year comes to a close, some take the time to meet with family members for the holidays. However, there will be some in Long Beach who will go into the new year without the company of a loved one.

Cambodian advocacy groups hosted a community forum, on Dec. 9, called “Not Home for the Holidays,” to discuss newly found data on education, housing and health for Cambodians living in Long Beach.

The event also allowed for Cambodian citizens to share stories of financial and educational struggles as well as deportation-related challenges.

Long Beach has the largest Cambodian community outside of the Southeast Asian country. Over 150 people attended the event.

Political leaders such as 47th District Congressmember Alan Lowenthal, 70th District Assemblymember Patrick O’Donnell, Long Beach City Councilmembers Lena Gonzalez and Daryl Supernaw and LBUSD School Board President Megan Kerr were in attendance.

Representatives from the offices of Los Angeles County 4th District Supervisor Janice Hahn, Senator Dianne Feinstein and Senator Ricardo Lara also attended the event to vocalize their support.

At the beginning of the forum, Kimthai Kuoch, CEO of the Cambodian Association of America, introduced the historic conditions, including U.S. policies and Vietnam War-bombings, that attributed to the high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder within the community. During the height of the Vietnam War, President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered the dropping of hundreds of bombs on Cambodian territory in an effort to destroy North Vietnamese forces that had crossed into the country’s border, according to history.com.

The bombing campaigns of the Vietnam War and the genocide conducted by the Khmer Rouge militant group a decade later left a large scar in the Cambodian community.

“I was 11 years old,” Kuoch recalled. “I saw many people die, mostly old people.”

In an effort to understand how the Cambodian community in Long Beach has grown following war-time events, the Cambodian Advocacy Collaborative (CAC) and California State University, Long Beach conducted a Cambodian-community needs assessment.

There was a total of 220 participants who were interviewed. The interviewees had to be 18 years or older, reside in Long Beach and self-identify as Cambodian or Cambodian-American.

The data indicates that 28 percent, or one out of four participants, had poor health. They primarily suffered from diabetes, arthritis, depression, hypertension and PTSD. Twenty-five percent of those interviewed said they had attempted suicide.

On the economic side of things, the data shows that one in three participants are in debt. Fifty percent of Cambodians in the survey worked a total of less than one year, according to the needs assessment. The survey also found that half of the younger participants felt unsafe in their communities due to gang activity, drug use, theft and gun violence.

The forum then shifted from an analytical tone to a more personal one. Alisha Sim, an intern for the CAC, placed a human face onto the community needs assessment as she told the audience that she struggled to make ends meet by working a full-time job, going to school and tending to her parents’ medical needs.

“It is very stressful for me to focus on school while having to work to support my parents and myself,” she said.

Sim is a caretaker for her grandparents and her mother, who suffers from four out of the five chronic illnesses experienced by most Cambodian refugees.

“Running a lot of these errands for my family has become a challenge to me, almost like a job,” she said. “Family is my priority. There would be times I would have to miss school or schedule my work days to make sure everyone in the family is well and seeing the doctors when they need to.”

Sebastian Echeverry | Signal Tribune
During a Cambodian community forum, hosted on Dec. 9 in Long Beach, that discussed deportation, 70th District Assemblymember Patrick O’Donnell, along with other local and congressional leaders, voiced his concerns about the deportations family members and refugees.

With the pressure of school and hospital bills continuing to surmount them, Sim’s family is reminded every holiday season of what it is missing– her brother, who is a refugee immigrant who was deported to a country to which he has no connection.

In an email interview Wednesday evening, Sim withheld the name of her brother, saying, “Many families fear to share names, as they don’t want to be re-traumatized by getting media attention, unless it will help efforts to end deportations or help reunite the family.”

Her brother arrived to the U.S. when he was 4 years old. Now 32, Sim’s sibling is in Cambodia, and he can communicate with his family through calling cards.

“In order for us to contact him, we must buy a calling card,” Sim wrote in an email. “The calling card is roughly between $2 to $3, but we only get between 30 to 45 minutes to talk to him, which I believe does not buy enough time for us. Yes, $2 to $3 seems very inexpensive, but to have to buy it all the time adds up. Like I mentioned before, my parents were seamstresses and we don’t have much financially.”

Sim wrote that her brother had previously served time in prison for theft. At the time, she was about 14 years old and in the 8th grade.

Sim’s brother was deported to Cambodia in 2011, the same year his first son was born.

“He was detained [and] was not able to witness his own son’s birth,” she wrote. “The only chance he had to see and hold his son for the very first time was when we went to visit him in Oregon to say our last goodbyes.”

Sim said her brother has been sent to a place their parents had previously escaped due to war, and that his deportation is hurting the family dramatically, financially, physically and emotionally.

The aftermath of deportation is a heavy burden that impacts women who take on the role of supplementing family income when the main income earner, most often males, is detained or deported, according to a CAC press release.

During the event, Jocelyn Kong, member of the Khmer Girls in Action organization, said that her aunt was detained in Long Beach on drug-related charges. Kong did not share the name of her aunt with the Signal Tribune because she did not want it to be published.

Kong told the Signal Tribune in a phone interview Wednesday morning that her aunt was born in Cambodia and transferred to a Thai refugee camp at a very young age. In 1982, she was sponsored by an American family to come to the U.S. and receive full citizenship.

Now 35, Kong’s aunt has been detained. Her previous encounter with law enforcement happened at an early age when she was pulled over for driving without a license, according to Kong. Her family was informed of her detention by contacting a bail bond organization that confirmed that she had been incarcerated.

“My aunt didn’t have a home at the time. She would sleep at friends’ houses, in her car or the park bench,” Kong said. “We looked here and there for her, but she wasn’t found, so we called the bail bonds place.”

Kong said her aunt didn’t speak much to the family about what was happening related to her deportation because she felt disappointed in herself.

Currently, she is attending court hearings and legally challenging her detention. She has a 10-month-old daughter whom Kong’s family is caring for. She could not confirm if her aunt was scheduled to be deported.

According to a press release from the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC), Cambodia’s immigration department recently confirmed that more than 70 Cambodians from the U.S. will be deported in the month of December. Additionally, a total of 200 people are expected to be removed in 2018.

Following the panel speakers’ personal stories, political leaders had the chance to speak to the audience during the forum.

Councilmember Gonzalez told the audience she hopes the Long Beach Values Act will pass in early January. The act was brought to the council two months ago and was authored by Gonzalez, Vice Mayor Rex Richardson and Long Beach Councilmembers Roberto Uranga and Jeannine Pearce.

The act states that it will prohibit local law agencies from working with ICE to deport citizens, provide resources for legal defense funds and would work with police and health organizations to abolish any sort of lists that would be used to deport immigrants.

During the forum, Assemblymember O’Donnell told the audience that he promises “to be your advocate.”

The Assemblymember spoke with the Signal Tribune Saturday and said that he had heard the numbers and statistics about the Cambodian community, but the personal stories he heard during the forum helped him better understand the issue.

“This is America,” he said. “We should do everything we can to keep families together.”

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