Stories of Survival: A Conversation with Katya Cengel


Katya Cengel’s new book, Exiled: From the Killing Fields of Cambodia to California and Back, is a timely examination of the issue of deportation of Cambodian refugees forty years after their resettlement in the United States. Cengel tells the story of four multi-generational families who survived the horrors of the Cambodian genocide in the 1970s, in which nearly two million people were killed under the Khmer Rouge reign of terror, and made their way to California and other states. But now, in an ongoing battle, some of those families are fighting against the deportation of family members who were convicted of crimes. Cengel’s book shows there are no easy answers as families say goodbye to their sons, daughters, mothers, and fathers who are forced to return to a Cambodia that some of them never knew or that others hoped never to see again.

Cengel is an experienced journalist and author whose work has appeared on National Public Radio and in the New York Times Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, Marie Claire, Newsweek, and others. She has been awarded two reporting fellowships from the International Reporting Project (IRP) and is the author of a previous book, Bluegrass Baseball: A Year in the Minor League Life. Her new book, Exiled, is the result of Cengel’s persistent and compassionate reporting over several years, and provides essential background on the issues of immigration and deportation that are making headlines in our country and the world.

I recently talked with Cengel about why she wrote a book about the Cambodian immigration experience in America, how the 2016 election impacted deportations and what happened to the main characters we come to know.


The Rumpus: What motivated you to write Exiled?

Katya Cengel: I had reported previously about Cambodian Americans who had been deported to Cambodia, but I never felt I could do justice to the issue in an article. I wanted people to understand what deportation meant for the individuals and their families. What is it like to go to ICE [US Immigration and Customs Enforcement] every six months to check in knowing one day you might not be able to walk out again on your own? Many of the people I followed had been facing deportation for years. I wanted to know how they went on with day-to-day life, driving their kids to school, making dinner, knowing at any minute it could all be taken from them.

Rumpus: Of course the issue of possible deportation affects many immigrant groups these days, not just Cambodians.

Cengel: Yes, people are just starting to understand how the deportation of El Salvadorians who sought sanctuary in the US in the 1980s, after heavy US involvement in their civil war in the 1980s, led to the creation of transnational gangs like MS-13.

With the Cambodians, I think another motivating factor for me was the older generation. While there’s been documentation of the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge, I felt there could be more. There were stories that needed to be told, incredible stories of survival, and we were running out of time to tell them. Those stories were also part of the current stories of deportation. I wanted readers to see the bigger picture, just like with El Salvador, and understand the role the US played in it over generations.

Rumpus: Some of the stories your older characters tell are truly horrifying, like mothers having to take rags off of corpses to provide clothing for their children. How difficult was it to gain the trust of the Cambodian community you interviewed? In addition to their experiences in Cambodia, others have been imprisoned for serious crimes in the United States. It must have been hard for them to talk about those experiences.

Cengel: It was actually very difficult to find families willing to open up to me. I originally wrote about a young woman who had already been deported to Cambodia and I had thought she would introduce me to her family in the United States. But there was a lot of reluctance and that didn’t end up working out. I don’t blame her; what I was asking was invasive and uncomfortable. After meeting with activists within the community I was eventually introduced to some of the individuals I follow in the story. Slowly, by spending time with these individuals, I was able to tell a little more of their story each time we met. There was one woman whose husband had recently been deported who initially agreed to meet, but later would not return my calls or emails. I think it was all just too painful for her.

Rumpus: What about getting the cooperation of government officials, both US and Cambodian?

Cengel: I don’t think I ever really got the cooperation of the US government. I got a lot of run-around and canned responses from various press relations people, but not much else. In Cambodia I was able to connect with the government largely thanks to sources who knew people in power. The activist groups 1Love Movement and 1Love Cambodia had been meeting with the government on this very issue, which made the Cambodian side more receptive to meeting with me.

Rumpus: On your visits to Cambodia, what were the main challenges in finding and interviewing the deportees?

Cengel: Some individuals were easy to meet and very open to talking. Others were skeptical, guarded, and suspicious. Spending time with the deportees, explaining why I was there and being patient and persistent helped. One deportee who kept putting me off during my first visit to the country did finally agree to meet with me when I returned several years later.

Rumpus: What has happened to the deportees once they arrive in Cambodia? Have they gotten any assistance from the government or organizations there?

Cengel: Bill Herod, an American who has been in Cambodia for a number of years, started an organization, the Returnee Integration Support Center (RISC), to help the Cambodians. They have a limited budget, they try to meet them at the airport, try to reunite them with family, they have some small scholarships, train them to work as English teachers, some travel budget, health care. They’re pretty much the main organization.

Rumpus: I’ve heard some Americans say they have no sympathy for deportees who have committed a serious crime, such as murder or selling drugs. What’s your response to that point of view?

Cengel: That’s a good question, and a really valid one. Yes, these people committed a crime, but they have served time for that crime, so some people would say they are being punished twice. Another factor to consider: they came as refugees and didn’t have the best resettlement, ending up in the neighborhoods that were ill-prepared for them, that made it almost impossible to adjust. Now, most of them have reformed, they have jobs and families who are doing well. If you deport them, their American citizen children will be without a parent, without a primary breadwinner, so those children’s lives will change drastically, socially, emotionally, and economically. These children are people who are going to be staying here, growing up; they’re Americans. I think that by taking away their parents they will be very negatively impacted.

There’s also the question of the conditions in the country they’re being deported to. Cambodia is not really set up to handle those deportees with mental illness, drug addiction. There have been quite a few suicides, some deportees wind up in jail. So, if you send people to a place that’s not equipped to handle them, it’s not really helping that place either.

Rumpus: You began working on the book before the 2016 US elections. After Donald Trump’s election, how has the situation changed for Cambodians facing deportation? And has Trump’s focus on Islamic and Hispanic immigration taken any pressure off of the Cambodian community?

Cengel: The deportation of Cambodians has increased since Trump’s election. This past spring forty-three Cambodians were deported, the largest number to be deported since deportations began in 2002. At the same time, in California, two Cambodians received pardons for their crimes under Gov. Jerry Brown.

Because the Cambodians have committed crimes, they are one of the groups Trump is coming down hard on. To date, six hundred thirty-nine Cambodians have been deported and around fourteen hundred are still facing deportation. The Cambodians are expecting another thirty to fifty deportations before the end of the year.

Rumpus: What changes in the immigration law do most Cambodians in the US want to see, or think might be possible?

Cengel: The Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC) has a very clear idea of what needs to be changed. They want to allow immigration judges to once again be able to take into consideration a person’s total circumstances when deciding whether they should be deported or not. They want judges to be able to consider relief for certain groups, including juvenile offenders, those who show that they have been rehabilitated, those with US citizen children, and those for whom deportation would cause considerable hardship for them or their families.

They want to change the definition of “aggravated felony” so those with minor offenses do not face mandatory deportation. They also want to end the deportation of those who came to the US as refugees and end mandatory detention for those who are facing deportation.

I think they believe all of these changes are possible, considering many would simply take things back to how they were before harsh immigration legislation in the 1990s was passed.

Rumpus: How about you? Do you expect significant changes to deportation policy to take place in the coming years?

Cengel: To be truthful I have no idea what to expect. The 1Love Movement has made great progress on the Cambodia side and other activist groups were making progress in the US, but after Trump’s election things became much harder to predict.

Rumpus: This summer the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen won parliamentary elections, though many international observers questioned the legitimacy of those polls. How does the Cambodian community in the United States view Hun Sen’s government and its policy on deportation?

Cengel: The Cambodian community in the US is divided. While most of the people I wrote about were against Hun Sen, others supported him. Even some of those who were against Hun Sen were attempting to work with his government on the issue of deportation. That was before he further cracked down on press freedom and the opposition in the run-up to the election though. Even within families there is division regarding Hun Sen.

Rumpus: Any updates in recent weeks to some of the main characters you profile in the book, such as David Ros, San Tran Croucher or Sarith Chan? I think you do a great job getting us to know these people, to care about them, even as I’m sure it was hard to get them to open up to you.

Cengel: Oh, you want me to give away the end of the book? [Laughs] Well, I will provide a few clues: David, one of the main characters, now has a lawyer and recently checked in with ICE. San took a much-deserved vacation to Alaska. Sarith is now a father. And one of the other main characters is now in Cambodia.

John Schidlovsky is the founding director of the International Reporting Project (IRP), a Washington-based organization that provided grants to journalists for twenty years to cover international issues. Previously he was a former Asia-based correspondent for the Baltimore Sun and director of the Hong Kong-based Freedom Forum Asia Center. More from this author →