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Expert Voices

After A Lifetime Of Compounded Trauma, Southeast Asian Deportees Need A Path To Healing

Published April 30, 2024

By Frances Nguyen, contributing writer

As we honor AAPI History Month, we’re bringing forth an often overlooked aspect of the lives of refugees and asylum seekers who come to the U.S.:

Deportation impacts mental health, and gaps in related services for these survivors remain.

When Elijah Chhum first began hosting healing spaces during the pandemic for community members who’d been deported to Cambodia, he would begin the online sessions by inviting them to start at the beginning:

“Tell me when you were born, where you were born and what the conditions were.” Often, he said, their stories would begin with genocide.

Chhum is the program director of New Light, a wellness outreach program for community members impacted by incarceration and deportation. The program is hosted at the Center for Empowering Refugees and Immigrants (CERI), an intergenerational grassroots organization in Oakland, California. CERI is one of the organizations in California working to improve the overall well being of immigrant and refugee communities. 

Most of the individuals the New Light program serves are Cambodian and came to the U.S. as young refugee children or infants, fleeing the Khmer Rouge genocide and U.S. military intervention in Southeast Asia. 

The Connection Between Relocation, Incarceration and Deportation

Having been resettled in low-income, high-crime neighborhoods where they experienced poverty and gang violence that made them feel no less safe than when they were in wartime violence, some of these individuals ended up committing crimes that led to incarceration. 

After serving their sentences and being deemed rehabilitated, many were directly transferred into immigration detention with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and summarily deported back to their native countries. Others, however, were held under threat of removal for years—some for decades—after their release, with only a moment’s notice before their lives were upended. 

More than 15,000 Southeast Asian refugees, mainly from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam—who had already served prison sentences and were approved for release—have final orders for removal.

This is an act that will ultimately sever them from their families, communities, and futures as contributing members of society. 

Many of these individuals had not set foot in their native countries since they first fled. For those who were born in refugee camps, they were deported to places they had never been before. And, countries that refused to accept nationals deported from the U.S. were deemed “recalcitrant” and faced sanctions.

Asian Community-Centered Organizations Band Together

New Light was founded after a delegation of organizations went to Cambodia in 2019. This ground gathered to host legal clinics for the deported community and listen to their needs. These organizations included the Asian Prisoner Support Committee (APSC) and Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus.

New Breath Foundation, a philanthropy serving Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) communities, was also present. “A throughline that we heard from so many was this really big need to have support for their mental health struggles,” said Claudia Leung, director of programs at the foundation. 

New Breath’s founder, Eddy Zheng, is a formerly incarcerated AANHPI “juvenile lifer” who was marked for removal upon his release. “He had the experience of wondering if he would be deported back to a country that he hadn’t seen since he was a kid,” said Leung. 

“That is the case for many of the folks who we are working with now, and who we are supporting through our grantees.” 

Difficulties as a ‘Returnee’

Community members who met with that coalition spoke of facing manifold expressions of isolation: Language fluency can segregate “returnees” (as they are often called, who likely left before they could become fluent or never learned their mother tongue from the native population. And, they also often found themselves ostracized from society as soon as their past convictions were discovered. 

“It’s very hard for the local community in Cambodia to fully accept the deported or returnee community,” said Chhum. 

“They look at the American system as something just. [So] if America deemed these community members as deportable, then they must have done something so egregious and wrong that they deserved this.”

The Mental Health Impact of Storytelling

New Light was conceived to address that desperate need. But, mental health still carries significant stigma among Southeast Asian communities, in their homelands and across the diaspora.

“When New Light was birthed, many people actually [told us not to] use the word ‘mental health’ to our impacted communities in Cambodia,” said Chhum. “‘Try to use any other word.’”

“Folks have been deported to Cambodia since 2002, and some of them have been there for more than 20 years,” said Chhum. 

It just felt to me as if they were waiting for someone to hold their story, to hear them.”

Elijah Chhum

So, New Light began by asking deported community members to share their stories. These stories soon detailed starvation, torture, violence and mass death during wartime. Community members also recalled violent upbringings post-resettlement, unaddressed post-traumatic stress, brutal assimilation and brotherhood through gang culture. 

“As soon as they talk about their story, it’s all there,” said Chhum. “The trauma.”

Support That Extends Past Mental Health To Address It

Since New Light’s work began, the need to extend psychosocial support to deported community members, who again have found themselves resettled in an unfamiliar place and struggling to adjust, became more pronounced among organizers. 

But the landscape for these services is still threadbare. This is true for those working to connect deported persons to their communities in the U.S. and those on the ground in their native countries.

Asian Prisoner Support Committee (APSC) is an advocacy organization and service provider for AANHPI prisoners. Their work includes supporting the reentry of these communities into society post-deportation through its Care Package Program.

This effort includes sending 30-pound boxes stuffed with food, multivitamins, hygiene products and clothes to their enrolled clients overseas. 

One popular foodstuff, said John Lam, APSC’s special projects program coordinator, is Folgers instant coffee. The coffee can go for $15 USD in a place like Cambodia, where individuals may make as little as $1 USD a day when they’re first resettled. 

“That’s a luxury item,” said Lam, as are other basic items that are taken for granted in America. 

But the program isn’t just about meeting unmet needs for a population that has been relegated to the outskirts of society. 

“The Care Package Program became an extension to remind folks who were deported, ‘We’re still here for you, we’re thinking about you and we want to send you a little reminder of the things you may miss or cannot obtain in your home country.”

It may be a small gesture, but it goes a long way for a community that feels entirely isolated. “That is a big part of it,” said Cheung. “The feeling like life carries on without you when you aren’t at home.”

Mutual Aid and Community Support 

Support for this population’s reintegration back into society varies by country, said Lam. But, rarely do any of the services offer psychosocial support.

Even here in the States, finding mental health services is quite challenging, so imagine being in a developing country.”

John Lam

“[But] one thing that is common across the board is that the community of deportees provide for each other. They are their strongest advocates and their strongest support networks.”

A fundamental part of addressing healing for this community is supporting and strengthening mutual aid among its members, said Chhum. “[For] us as facilitators, it’s really just trying to create a space where people can share each other’s resources and strengths and build up those bonds with each other.”

The network of intergenerational grassroots organizations working on anti-deportation believes that only by ending state-sanctioned family separation can the cycle of trauma for this generation of refugees end.

But, according to Chhum, one need not come before the other.

“To mobilize a community to fight against deportation, there has to be some form of healing to get folks to band together,” Chhum said.

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