A refugee in exile

Photo courtesy of Vinh Dao

While in state prison, Kosal Khiev jumped out of bed from a terrible nightmare. The 32-year-old former Santa Ana resident woke up in the middle of the night, washed his face and looked at himself in the mirror. He saw his younger, more jubilant self, masked by the hardened reality of his adulthood, reflected in the image before him. Khiev asked himself, “Is this it, man? Is this all you’re going to become? Am I going to die with you, here?”

Although Khiev was ready to turn his life around after his 14-year prison sentence, little did the Cambodian-born refugee know, he would be transported and dropped off permanently in a country he had never known.

Khiev was born in a refugee camp on border of Cambodia and Thailand. His family was escaping the brutal genocidal Khmer Rouge regime, which led to the deaths of more than 2 million Cambodians in the late 1970s.

When he was a year old, his family was brought over to the United States by a church sponsor in North Carolina.

After spending a few years isolated from the mostly white community in the area, his family settled into the Cambodian neighborhood on Minnie Street in Santa Ana. The area had been known to be inundated with crime and gang violence, but it was one of the very few neighborhoods in the United States with a close-knit Cambodian community.

“You see all kinds of things growing up there. You see drug dealers, you see gang members — that’s what was out there, and it was all around … Although I did not get involved (at first), it stuck with me,” said Khiev. “I grew up in this environment, and I had to grow up really quick.”

At the age of 16, Khiev was convicted of attempted murder. He said he was in a gang fight that led to his 14-year prison sentence in California. Khiev admitted he made mistakes in his youth, but after spending nearly half of his life in prison, he had reformed himself.

“It’s a lot of fears, a lot of anxiety and apprehension,” Khiev said about his time in jail. “But at the end of the day, I knew I had do it. So knowing I had do it, I had this determination … saying ‘You know, since I have to do this, then let’s try to do the best I can.’”

Many refugees of war in the United States, including those who fled the war in Cambodia, are entitled to “refugee status,” which means they gain immunity from most immigration laws. However, legislation since the 1990s and a recent law in 2002 have led to the deportation of those refugees who commit crimes.

In 2011, the Cambodian government agreed to allow the Immigration and Naturalization Service to forcibly deport Cambodian refugees who had lived in the United States with legal permanent residence. This agreement extended laws in 1996 that required the issuance of deportation orders convicted of certain crimes, including misdemeanors.

Last year, Khiev was deported to Cambodia after serving his sentence. When Khiev found out he was being deported, he said he was in shock about going to a country he had no connection with.

“I felt angry. I felt bitterness … I survived all of this time fighting to get back home — fighting to get back into the arms of my mom, my brothers, my sisters, my nephews and nieces … When I found out I was being deported, I was like, ‘Wow, really? Are you serious?’ It was so much heartbreak,” Khiev said.

Since he arrived in Cambodia, Khiev has performed spoken word art in Phnom Penh. Khiev has used his spoken word pieces to bring light to his situation and others who have had experiences similar to his. He said he started writing as a way to pass the time while in prison and found a passion for it.

Studio Revolt took notice of Khiev’s spoken word talents and recently included him as their first “in-house” artist for their collaborative media project in Cambodia. The studio runs an independent media lab that hopes to use art to put emerging artists in the spotlight, as well as assert a new generation of narratives for Cambodians.

The work Khiev has done with the studio has helped him go to the Cultural Olympics 2012 to represent Cambodia in London.

Recently the group collaborated with Khiev and other refugee exiles to enter a video in a White House contest. The contest asked people to create the best video about the Asian American experience, called “My Asian Americana,” and post it on YouTube.

Studio Revolt’s entry featured Khiev and about a half dozen other Cambodian refugee deportees in his same position, reminscing on life back home in the States. Each of them tell the camera “I’m an exiled American, and I can’t go home.”

It appeared to have the most views, at 14,000 hits at the time, and was listed as one of the 11 finalists.

The video did not make the final cut of six entrees, in which winners would present their videos during a White House event in D.C. The video has been viewed around 20,000 times.

According to a press release by Studio Revolt, the video won the most public votes and the studio has been unable to find out why they were not in the top six.

Performance artist Anida Yoeu Ali of Studio Revolt said they feel they were “snubbed” because the issue of exiled Cambodians is one that is difficult to approach, especially to an administration that has cracked down on immigration. However, that is precisely why they entered the video in the first place.

“It seemed like they had an idea already of what is success in the Asian American community” she said. “We thought we should remind Asian Americans that there are issues out there that are complex and complicated and not so pretty to handle … (These) deportees are a critical part of the (Asian American) experience.”

Ali said refugees should not be returned to the place they fled because they were trying to escape the traumatization of war and violence, and in these particular Cambodian cases, a genocidal regime. And now, she said, they are being dropped off in places they know nothing about in terms of language and culture.

“Many Cambodians arrived in areas (in the United States) that were impoverished and even more violent than where they came from,” she said. “The social conditions led a lot of these young people to fend for themselves … They were trying to find an identity and place of belonging. They were very much lost in the shuffle and dealt with inner-city violence”

Studio Revolt filmmaker Masahiro Sugano said there is a gap between what the government wants you to see and the reality of what is going out on the streets of the U.S.

“These guys are very similar to us,” he said. “When you start to label someone, like ‘alien,’ you start thinking of some creature with six legs, crawling around, trying to drink people’s blood. (These refugees) could be anyone you know, like your cousins, your uncles who have made mistakes in their youth, and now are being removed from their country because of this legal mishandling.”

Studio Revolt’s “My Asian Americana” entry

Kosal Khiev’s spoken word piece “Verses in Exile #1: Why I Write”

Originally featured in The Daily Titan

Amber Stephens