From the Desk of Katya Cengel: Telling Refugee Stories

Cengel_KatyaKatya Cengel is a freelance writer based in San Luis Obispo, California, and lectures in the Journalism Department of California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. Her new book, Exiled: From the Killing Fields of Cambodia to California and Back, is now available. 

Publishing a book is a bit like jumping out of an airplane. I can say this with confidence having both had books published and jumped out of an airplane. You prepare as well as you can, then you let go, not knowing how you, or the book, will land.

When I parachuted from a plane in Ukraine—there is another story there, and it will be covered in my next UNP book—I aimed for the field below. I was told what to do if the parachute didn’t open, and how to lock my legs on landing. There were long peaceful minutes between when I jumped, and when I landed. In that time I didn’t know if I might break my leg on impact. I didn’t know if a gust of wind would blow me toward a tree, or worse yet, a window.

The same is true with a book, once you release it for publication you don’t know how it will land. I say all of this as way of introducing the surprises my new book Exiled: From the Killing Fields of Cambodia to California and Back had in store for me.

When I started researching Exiled in 2014 Barack Obama was president. Deportations were happening, but no one was paying much attention. When I told my mother that I planned to write about Cambodian families facing criminal deportation, she worried it was too obscure a topic.

Then, in 2016, Donald Trump was elected president and immigration and deportation were suddenly hot topics. In the summer of 2018, Trump began separating immigrant families at the border, detaining young children without their parents. The nation worried about what would happen to these families.

Suddenly people started talking about other families confronting separation due to harsh immigration policies, families like the ones followed in Exiled. Families that came to the U.S. as refugees, and as legal permanent residents were subject to deportation for a number of crimes not considered felonies under criminal law. Families like San Croucher’s.

San and her three daughters were separated during the Cambodian genocide. They survived and came to the U.S. as refugees when San’s eldest, Sithy, was a teenager. Sithy struggled in school, not understanding English and suffering from seizures. She ended up with boyfriends who beat her, because, in part, that is what she was used to, being beaten. She served time for a drug charge and then was issued deportation orders. The idea that her daughter would be taken from her again, reignited the trauma San experienced under the Khmer Rouge. Sithy’s own daughters, and a son, are U.S. citizens.

According to a new report by the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF) and the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC) 93 percent of Southeast Asian Americans with removal orders have U.S. citizen family members. Like Sithy, the majority of them, 91 percent, are refugees. Almost 70 percent have children.

The children were my next surprise. Most of the families I follow in the book had young children when I began writing about them. Sarith did not. His friends described him to me as an eternal bachelor. When I first tried to meet Sarith in Battambang, Cambodia, he kept putting me off because he was in the middle of engagement preparations. That was my first surprise. After numerous attempts on my part, Sarith met up with me reluctantly. Even then he was guarded and skeptical, uneasy about telling me about himself. Eventually he began to open up and share his story.

Now Sarith is in touch regularly, sending messages over Facebook and asking questions about and promoting Exiled. Many of his messages include pictures and notes about his baby daughter, my second surprise. His fatherhood and how much he embraced it is touching, but at the same time upsetting, because every photo he posts reminds me of the posts by other Exiles. Posts about the child they haven’t seen in years: a daughter in California who excels at martial arts; a son in Washington State who is starting junior high school.

People ask what I think will happen next. Like that jump I took years ago, I have an idea and a hope of what will follow, but no assurance that is what will actually happen.




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