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Journalist’s Book Explains Severe Barriers Cambodian Refugees Face In California

December 26, 2018 1:32 p.m.

GUEST: Katya Cengel, author, “Exiled: From the Killing Fields of Cambodia to California and Back.”

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Related Story: Journalist’s Book Explains Severe Barriers Cambodian Refugees Face In California


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

Immigrants refugees fleeing violence included are often demonized these days by Donald Trump and his administration. Trump famously launched his campaign by labeling immigrants from Mexico as rapists. There is the Muslim ban. Trump and spokesmen claim without proof that many of the Central Americans seeking asylum at our border are quote stone cold criminals. Some politicians and their followers in Europe offer similar characterizations of those fleeing violence in Syria Africa and elsewhere but a new book delves into the complicated picture of what can happen to refugees after arriving in America.

Joining me is California author and former San Diego journalist crotchless and go. Her new book is exiled from the killing fields of Cambodia to California and back. Welcome Kaja thank you for having me. Well your book focuses on four refugee families who fled unimaginable horrors in the infamous killing fields in Cambodia. That was in the 1970s under the Pol Pot regime. Now decades later many of them face deportation. You write they represent universal immigration issues and start with refugee resettlement. What often happens to refugees once they are quote safe in America.

Yeah well that's really interesting especially with this particular group. They came in the 1980s for the most part during the war on crack cocaine was in the inner cities very violent time and refugees especially with this group were resettled in for the most part inner cities. And then a lot of times they have a sponsor who helps them. But the sponsor is often a family member who only came a couple of years before them. And so there are a lot of barriers one language so many of them do not speak English.

Then there is for these particular ones the trauma they endured which would make interacting with government difficult because their government had basically been killing them. So there's certainly don't trust government. So there are trust issues if you take one of the families. There's a story about when she came with her mother she was a teenager and they put her in school. She didn't speak any English and she remembers her mom saw her come home and showed a test. And the only thing she could write on the test was her name and she also had suffered from trauma and ended up with seizures.

And so she was having seizures at school so they just sent her home to do home schooling but then she felt so isolated she ended up not doing that. But there are stories of her mom getting the police contacting her about when that young woman tried to kill herself and she didn't understand what the police were trying to tell her. So they had to write her note in the next day she took her place of employment to English speakers who translated it for her and she realized oh my daughter is in a psychiatric hospital because she tried to kill herself.


So all of these kind of barriers are really difficult for these folks when they come in. Yeah you know it was very interesting your note in the front of your book about about post-traumatic stress disorder and affects not only refugees but also their descendants. I find that fascinating. What what does the research show and such families regarding how PTSD is passed on.

We kind of are aware that trauma can change the current person affected by it but there it can actually change the biology as well that can. There are some studies showing that could then be passed down to children.

So not only are they affect even children born here. Nothing to this.

And so we already know if someone is traumatized how they raised those children would probably be affected. But then actually that those children biologically could be changed. But we want to be careful when talking about this because the scientists have criticized when journalists oversimplify it that then people might think oh those people then are behind for life or whatever.

So these these barriers though the talking about the PTSD and these in these families it results in a lot of these folks that are failing to assimilate. Then some broke the law they face deportation to the groups that you wrote about right.

Yeah. And so that that happened with a number of these people and also with being in these inner cities. A lot of them said they joined gangs for protection because they were the Asian kids in areas that were highly Latino or or something else. And so they kind of banded together to protect themselves from the gangs that were already there or those kind of things for city. The woman I mentioned earlier who had struggled in school. She ended up with a bunch of abusive boyfriends. She says she was used to being abused by the Khmer Rouge and so she fell into that and then ended up with drug charges and things like that.

So yeah it's just kind of the cycle and then they can wind up decades later being deported to a country where either they fled or in some cases they never knew.

Yeah and I think that is also interesting because people don't fully understand that when you come to this country as a refugee the U.N. actually criticizes the U.S. for this. You do not automatically become a citizen. A lot of other countries it's more automatic here. You actually end up becoming a legal permanent resident. But it's another step to citizenship. And so that's what then puts them in danger if they were citizens they wouldn't be subject to these deportations. But as noncitizens legal permanent residence they are then subject to them.

You talk about about 150 8000 Cambodians mostly fleeing these atrocities. We talked about in the killing fields era they settle in the U.S. toward the last century. Who are these folks generally. I mean what are the characteristics. And you mentioned why they are really U.S. citizen.

So a lot of this particular group didn't realize their importance and the need to apply for citizenship and tell the deportation started happening and then it's almost too late on that when you're asking who they are so that's really interesting because the Khmer Rouge pretty much killed off the educated class so they they didn't want anyone who on education or anything so you had in general and this is a generalization. A lot of them were farmers and in the other the Khmer Rouge you weren't educated to some of them whose parents might have been educated they never had a chance to go to school because they were put in basically work camps under the Khmer Rouge and such.

So it makes it even tougher to assimilate and try to make their way and move up the ladder in the U.S..

Exactly I mean one of the families he never learned to write in comite language in Cambodia and then coming to the U.S. and needing to learn to be literate in a language when he wasn't fully literate even in his own language. Those kind of barriers. And then again when you've had such trauma it is memory it's hard to learn. There are studies on that as well from scientists that when you've been traumatized you just have trouble with memory and learning. So it's it's it's a really difficult situation.

Why did you embark on this project. What got you interested.

I think for me it was to tell the full story because people hear about deportations and especially this group I had done an earlier article for it for foreign policy and I really to tell this story you have to have the generations you have to look at the influence the larger you think the U.S. bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War the genocide in Cambodia in the 1970s and kind of look at how that plays out through these generations so people understand more fully the background in what is going on and what these people are going through.

The book is called exiled from the killing fields of Cambodia to California and back I've been speaking with your son Gil. Thanks Scott.

Thank you so much.