A Change of Guard

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Wednesday, 31 December 2008

EXILED TO CAMBODIA: Toehold on a new life

By Greg Mellen,
Staff Writer

Tuy Sobil, aka KK, keeps an eye on break dancers at Korsang, a center for returnees in Phnom Penh. KK teaches break and hip-hop dancing to street kids in Tiny Toones, a group he created. In addition to dancing, the organization teaches English, Khmer and lessons in other life skills. (Jeff Gritchen / Staff Photographer)
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Drug users huddle in an abandoned building as they smoke yama, a form of crystal meth, and strip copper from electronic fixtures to sell in the Boueng Trabek area of Phnom Penh. The slum, among others, is frequented by drug-addicted exiles and those with mental illnesses. (Jeff Gritchen / Staff Photographer)


PHNOM PENH, Cambodia -- Where the paved portion of Street 123 turns to dirt in the back streets of Phnom Penh seems

Charlie, a Cambodian returnee and former gang member from Oakland, shoots up heroin with a clean needle from Korsang s needle exchange in Boueng Trabek. (Jeff Gritchen / Staff Photographer)

like the end of the earth.

This is where you'll find Boney, a former gang member from Long Beach, leaning against a concrete wall smoking cigarettes and talking smack. Inside the compound, Trip, another former Long Beach resident, is regaling others with his latest exploits.

This is Korsang, the last building at the border where homes turn to rubble and huts.

The corner compound -- from where you first feel, then hear, the bass beat of hip-hop music thrumming from a battered CD player -- is a place where the Wild West meets the Far East.

This is ground zero for a number of Cambodian-Americans who were deported for crimes committed in the U.S. And while they may be Cambodian by birth, in every other way

they are unabashedly American, from their street patois to their baggy urban dress.

For many of these former gangsters and urban hipsters, Korsang is a toehold at the end of the world, something that keeps them from falling into the oblivion and despair of modern Cambodia.

An internationally funded, nongovernment organization, Korsang employs deportees to handle needle exchanges and provide an array of aid, education and social services to a burgeoning population of drug- addicted

Former Long Beach gang member Boney, left, hangs out at Korsang, a deportee gathering place.

youth in Boueng Trabek and other slums of Phnom Penh.

While Korsang has been a savior to some deportees, many others have fallen without a net.

For those who don't find their way to an assistance program or lack family to take them in, for those without money or connections, for those who suffer from addiction and mental illness, repatriation to Cambodia can be a lingering death sentence.

Korsang crew

The deportees in Cambodia come from various walks of life. Many are former gang members, career criminals and drug users. But others were tradesmen, family men or wayward youngsters who stumbled into crime, sometimes only once. And a good percentage suffer from mental disease.

But all were

Boney shows off his tattoos. A self-proclaimed former big shot in the Tiny Rascal Gang, he said he has made his peace with deportation. (Jeff Gritchen / Staff Photographer)

criminals in the U.S., and all face the same fate.

They are people like Boney.

As he cracks jokes, Boney is all attitude. A self-proclaimed former big shot in the Long Beach Tiny Rascal Gang, or TRG, Boney, 40, is one of the OGs, or original gangsters, of Korsang. He prefers to be referred to by his street name, by which everyone knows him.

"In Long Beach they all know me," Boney says. "I'm like the main guy in my neighborhood. I'm not going to lie. I'm not going to hide."

Boney says his introduction to Long Beach was having his bike "jacked" and being bullied and harassed at school. He says he and other Cambodians living in the inner city joined gangs for protection.

Although he doesn't agree

A returnee who wanted to be known only as Trip, a Poly High School graduate, said he misses Long Beach and would return in an instant if he had the choice. (Jeff Gritchen / Staff Photographer)

with the American policy that requires deportation for felons who are not citizens, he bears no grudges.

"I'm not going to say I hate America because America gave me a chance," says Boney, who admits to being a career criminal. "I just f----- up."

Boney says he has come to terms with his life in Cambodia and moved on. Had he stayed in the U.S., he admits he probably would have ended up back in jail.

Nearby is KK, whose real name is Tuy Sobil. Decked out in mesh gym shorts and a T-shirt, KK used to pal around with Boney, although they were in rival gangs.

KK was born in a Thai refugee camp. He was convicted of armed robbery when he was 18. After completing his jail sentence and while he awaited deportation, he and his girlfriend had a son, Kayshawn.

KK says he saw the boy once before he was sent away.

"It hurts," KK says. "It hurts so bad. I was lost in a way. I was thinking, `I will never see my son again."'

At the time, KK did not understand the difference between being a permanent alien and a citizen under U.S. law.

"I lost my son and my whole family," KK says.

A self-described "B-boy," what some break dancers and fans of that culture call themselves, KK now teaches break and hip-hop dancing to impoverished street kids through a group he created called Tiny Toones.

He has drifted away from Korsang to concentrate on Tiny Toones, which is supported by the NGO (nongovernmental organization) Bridges Across Borders.

At Tiny Toones, KK and other staffers and volunteers teach not only dancing but English, Khmer and other life skills to hundreds of children from the slums.

And that has given him life and a sense of purpose.

"When I came here, I lost hope like everyone else," KK says.

Now he says, "If I could go back to the U.S., I wouldn't want to. I want to stay with my kids."

KK's son attended a recent hip- hop competition held in Long Beach as a fundraiser for Tiny Toones.

When asked what he wanted to do when he grew up, Kayshawn said he wants to dance, "just like my dad." The dad he barely knows.

Then there's Trip, a self-described Mike Tyson.

Ask Trip about Long Beach and his face lights up.

"Oh, man, I miss it a lot," Trip says. "I miss the cars. I miss the girls, my cousins, my city."

Given a chance, unlike Boney and KK, Trip would return to Long Beach in an instant - if it were a choice.

To keep a semblance of his hip- hop persona, Trip and some friends are putting together a demo music CD. For the project, Trip goes by the handle of Trip Loc Capone.

Trip, 30, came to Cambodia in 2002 at just 24 years old. He graduated from Poly High in 1997. He says he was just a mischievous kid who got into stealing Hondas for street racing when that was popular.

After his deportation, Trip went to live with relatives in the countryside.

"I'm a city boy," Trip says. "Out there by 8 p.m., it's silent. I was going crazy."

So Trip made his way to Phnom Penh.

"I started volunteering and that straightened me out," he says.

Like most of their ex-pat compatriots, the Long Beach guys hang around decked out in hip-hop clothing, heavily tattooed and exuding American urban swagger.

Except for the surroundings, they could be any group of Cambodian guys hanging out in front of the Golden Villa on Anaheim Street.

Boney, KK and Trip say they have stayed away from drug use. They are the success stories, people who are now giving back to the community.

In an odd way, being deported may have been good, even saved them. They kicked drug habits, left lives of crime and the incarceration cycle.

The flip side

Many deportees do not fare so well.

People with mental illness like Chan and drug users like Charlie.

Charlie is trying to figure out how to die.

Chan succeeded.

A 33-year-old from Long Beach who suffered from depression and drug addiction, Chan hanged himself in his room. He had been dead more than a day when he was discovered.

It's 9 a.m. and Charlie is waiting for his fix. Charlie, who wouldn't give his last name, is one of the more animated and desperate characters in Boeung Trabek.

He can be found drifting along dirt alleys, hanging out in burned-out hovels where ravaged addicts smoke, huff chemicals, shoot up or do whatever they can to get high.

On this day Charlie has been waiting for the Korsang volunteers to show up with fresh needles to exchange.

As a policeman on the corner looks away indifferently, Charlie pops the needle into the back of his arm.

Then comes the rush as the heroin surges into Charlie's veins. His eyes pop open. Suddenly, he is a happy Charlie.

He turns around and pretends to jab at a photographer with his empty syringe.

"If I poked you with this, would that be cool?" he says, feinting with the needle. Wisely, the photographer backs away quickly.

Charlie cackles. Charlie is waiting to die.

He has attempted suicide several times. He has had and lost jobs. He's been in and out of rehab and spent time in jail.

Charlie remains rebellious and defiant and in this way is utterly American.

He might as well be screaming at a wall for the indifference he faces, for the hopelessness he feels.

To Charlie, Cambodia is the stuff of nightmares. He ping-pongs between humor and despair.

A former gang member, Charlie boasts of the trouble he got into in the rough neighborhoods of Oakland.

"I moved to the United States when I was 1 years old, man," Charlie says. "To tell you the truth, I don't know s--- about Cambodia. I'm American man. I'm a f------ American, they're never gonna make me Cambodian. I like hamburgers. ... I don't like rice every f------ day. I eat so much rice my face looks like rice."

When death comes, Charlie says he will welcome it.

Anything would be better to him than leaning against a wall waiting for his fix. Or trolling the streets for a hit of yama, a harsh, local form of crystal meth popular in the slums.

Charlie is always looking for that moment of a high when he is lifted out of the filth of the streets, above the emptiness of his spirit.

"I've tried to commit suicide three times, man. The last time, I bet you I'm gonna do it. I'm tired of this," he says. "That's why I run with drugs, to kill the f------- pain, man."

Charlie is homeless and shacking up with a sex worker.

Asked how he makes money, Charlie says, "I hustle. I put the `h' in hustle."

Charlie wanders off into the devastation of Boueng Trabek.

Around the corner, drug addicts lie around in small knots of humanity, looking like piles of dirty laundry. Several are sharing yama, which they smoke through pipes fashioned from water bottles and straws.

Charlie spies a group and dives in, smoking and hamming for a photographer.

"I put the `h' in hustle," he says again with a raspy laugh.

Boney eyes him conspiratorially, one former gangster to another, before riding off on his tuk-tuk to deliver more clean syringes

Charlie is left behind to whatever fate awaits.

Death sentence

While Charlie survives, Chan did not.

The former Long Beach resident was found dead on Dec. 7, 2007.

He was a drug addict who had been diagnosed with depression in the U.S. and kept stable with medication.

Holly Bradford, founder of Korsang, says people like Chan are the dirty secret of deportation -- those who are mentally unstable, in Chan's case suicidal, yet sent to fend for themselves in a country with almost no social services.

"In my opinion, it is a direct violation of his human rights to send somebody who has that kind of mental illness to a country where there's no resources to treat him," says Bradford, who reports that 25 percent of deportees suffer from mental illness.

Because of his depression, Chan began smoking yama, which triggered his fatal, final tailspin.

"He was hearing voices, ghosts and the whole 9 yards. You could see him going downhill," Bradford says.

Chan also felt guilt for disappointing his mother and leaving her in Long Beach.

"He was a sad, sweet, gentle and lost kid. No matter what we did for Chan, it wasn't enough," Bradford says.

Chan was cremated and a traditional seven-day Buddhist ceremony was held. His ashes were sent to family in the countryside.

Across town at the Returnee Integration Support Program, another NGO that helps deportees, a 50-year-old known as Cowboy built a hut in the backyard because he didn't want to live inside a real house. Although he is harmless, he is unable to function in society.

Another man, formerly from San Diego, who asks not to be identified, describes how he intentionally mutilated his hand in the U.S., cutting off several fingers and a thumb, to collect disability insurance while awaiting deportation.

RISP, which is run by returnee Sonec Tan, has become virtually dormant after several years as the main resource for deportees in Cambodia. It is the last refuge for Cowboy and the San Diegan.

Deportee population

The deportees fall into several categories.

While some have family in Cambodia with whom they can move in or connections and money, many arrive with no family or support and struggle just to survive. Of those, Bradford says, some resort to crime and drug use.

Several Long Beach residents who have traveled to Cambodia say old friends and acquaintances have gone back into gang life and drug dealing and abuse.

Prach Ly, a rapper from Long Beach, has friends who have been deported. He has seen firsthand the devastation.

"I think some can't cope. It's like a silent death sentence," Ly says.

He tells a man he identifies only as Kun, who came to see Ly perform in Phnom Penh.

"He was a friend, but he couldn't even look me in the eye," Ly says. "After the show, I wanted to talk to him to keep his spirits up. But when the show was over he was gone."

While Chantha Bob, a Long Beach resident and waiter at Sophy's restaurant, was in Cambodia, he met a former Long Beach resident he knew only as John.

Bob said John was living on the streets in Phnom Penh and begging for money for food.


Regardless of how they feel about the deportation laws and process, many deportees make peace with their new lives.

"It takes a while to feel like home, I mean, once you adapt to it and stop feeling sorry for yourself," says Wicket, an employee at Korsang who asked to be identified by his nickname. "I mean, it's home now. (You've) got to get on with your life. I have a couple of kids, a stable relationship. I got a good job, a career and I get to be involved in the community."

Boney, too, was recently married, KK has his dancers and Trip his music.

Most at Korsang say they wouldn't return to the U.S. even if they could.

For all the deprivation and loss, for all they feel may have been unfair about their sentences, these are guys who have found something in Cambodia that was lacking.

Call it purpose. Call it redemption. Guys who may have spent the majority of their adult lives in prison in the U.S., have a chance to actually give something back.

And while the Chans, Charlies, Johns and Cowboys may be poster children for what's wrong with U.S. deportation, some of these former gangbangers and drug abusers are setting things right here at the edge of the earth.

greg.mellen@presstelegram.com, 562-499-1291

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