Cambodian refugees being resettled in the United States after the genocide in 1974-79. | Courtesy of Katya Cengel

Katya Cengel says she had a friend in high school who was a Cambodian refugee and was about to lose some friends to deportation.

“But you can’t be deported if you’re an American citizen, right?” she recalls asking herself at the time. But the ones being deported were not citizens. They were legal permanent residents and had been convicted of crimes.

According to the History Channel, from 1975 to ’79, the Khmer Rouge, or “Red Cambodia,” ruled the country with an extreme iron fist under Marxist leader Pol Pot. During the regime, more than 2 million people were tortured and murdered. Between 1975 and 1994, about 158,000 Cambodians came to the United States as refugees.

Author Katya Cengel | Photo by Marcos Carreno

A generation later, those Cambodians are facing a new crisis: deportation.

Cengel, always curious about the Cambodians, wrote “Exiled: From the Killing Fields of Cambodia to California and Back,” a look at the lives of refugees who are facing deportation after living most of their lives in the United States.

Cengel, a former reporter for the Courier Journal, will be signing books at Carmichael’s Bookstore on Saturday, Aug. 11. The book will be released Sept. 1.

This is Cengel’s second book. She published “Bluegrass Baseball: A Year in the Minor League Life” in 2012.

“What’s interesting to me is the generation thing,” Cengel tells Insider. “You have people who survived one horror in one country, and they come here as refugees and these are people of our generation, that middle generation, and they came and were resettled in inner cities in the ’80s, which was such a very violent time in the inner cities.

“Exiled” author Katya Cengel will be at Carmichael’s on Saturday, Aug. 11.

“People didn’t think about (post-traumatic stress disorder) and resettling,” she continues. “And they just survived a genocide, and OK, and now adapt to life in the U.S. in inner cities, and then facing the deportation issues later.”

Cengel did a story in 2014 about deported Cambodian women for Foreign Policy. After that article, she became even more interested in the stories of other refugees who were being sent back to a country they had never known.

Cengel, who now lives in San Luis Obispo, Calif., spent a lot of time in Long Beach getting to know the Cambodians. Long Beach has the largest Cambodian population outside of Cambodia. She also traveled to Cambodia twice, staying with her father, who also happens to live in Cambodia.

As refugees, they are legal permanent residents, but if they want to become citizens of the United States, they have to take the extra step to do so.

“A lot of them didn’t take that extra step because it cost a lot of money or they didn’t realize,” Cengel says. “It’s called ‘legal permanent resident,’ so they think it’s permanent. Or they don’t trust the government because their government had been killing people.”

San Tran and her daughters, Sithy, Sithea and Jennifer, in a Thai refugee camp. As a teenager under the Khmer Rouge, San’s daughter Sithy had been the strong one who stole food to keep them alive. Those skills didn’t help her in the U.S., and she was eventually jailed for drug possession. San has hired a lawyer to fight Sithy’s deportation case. | Courtesy of Katya Cengel

The U.S. passed laws in the 1990s that actually came down harder on legal permanent residents who commit certain crimes.

“So people actually think it’s Trump that caused all these deportations, but it started before that,” says Cengel. “It started back in the 1990s.”

She explains some are being deported for serious crimes, such as murder, but some were simply shoplifting or were caught with marijuana.

“I wrote this before Trump was elected,” she adds. “In the book, I’m not saying what we should do or shouldn’t do, it’s just what happens, what the laws are. I think for me, one of the things was the kids. A lot of the people I follow who are facing deportation, they’re parents. So they have children who are American citizens. If they’re deported, what happens to those children? It fits in with some of the debates we’re having now with separating families — the longterm consequences aren’t thought about.”

David Ros, a Cambodian refugee, as a child | Courtesy David Ros

The people being sent home often are those who grew up speaking Khmer at home with their parents, but they never learned to read or write it, making it very difficult to get jobs. Khmer is written in a completely different script.

They are also very Americanized, meaning they may have tattoos, which are frowned upon in Cambodia, adding to the struggle for employment.

“A lot of the families never went back to Cambodia because that’s where the genocide was,” she says. “They never want to go back because there’s a lot of fear and everything that’s attached.”

And the older generation who actually remember it are reliving their horror as their children face deportation.

“When you get deported to Cambodia, most of these families, they don’t see each other again because it’s a very long flight, it’s very expensive, the time difference,” Cengel says. “The older parents can’t make that journey physically because those flights are so long. The kids, they have other things to do and don’t have that money, either. And you can’t really send a 6-year-old. It’s just destruction of the family. It’s interesting to see what goes on longterm with those families.”

Though she began the book several years ago, the timing of the release is a pleasant coincidence.

“My mom was like, ‘Who’s going to want to read about that?’” Cengel says with a laugh. “Then Trump got elected, and she’s like, ‘Wow, you kind of have good timing!’”

Cengel’s reading and book signing will be held from 9 to 11 a.m. on Saturday, Aug. 11, at Carmichael’s, 2720 Frankfort Ave. It is free and open to the public. 

Lisa Hornung a native of Louisville and has worked in local media for more than 15 years as a writer and editor. Before that she worked as a writer, editor and photographer for community newspapers in Kansas, Ohio and Kentucky. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Georgia, and after a 20-year career in journalism, she obtained a master’s degree in history from Eastern Kentucky University in 2016.


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