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Tuesday, January 14, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Home isn't sweet for Cambodians deported from U.S.

The Associated Press

BATTAMBANG, Cambodia — Growing up in a suburban Los Angeles ghetto, Samphos often dreamed of Cambodia, the homeland he fled as a 6-year-old with his parents to escape civil war.

He imagined himself running through Cambodian savannas, swimming in rivers and wandering through jungles watching tigers and elephants.

Last June, he was back in Cambodia — but against his will. He was brought back on a U.S. government plane, in handcuffs and chained to five other men.

Samphos, who asked that his family name not be used, was in the first group returned to Cambodia under a U.S. law allowing the deportation of resident aliens convicted of crimes in the United States.

About 1,400 such Cambodians are scheduled to be returned over the next several years, although only 36 have made the trip so far. Most have been single men in their 20s and 30s, but there was an 80-year-old man and several with mental disorders.

Their crimes range from murder and armed robbery to public indecency and habitual drunken driving.

Like the 27-year-old Samphos, the other deportees had lived nearly all their lives in the United States but never got around to filling out the paperwork to become U.S. citizens.

Coming to Cambodia has brought them to a land they barely understand, where poverty is deep and widespread and whose conservative social mores are a mystery.

"Starting over ain't easy," Samphos says in a distinctly Californian twang. "Man, the only way to kiss a girl around here is to marry her."

For all practical purposes, the deportees are Americans — just listen to Samphos' accent and look at the dragon tattoo on his muscular left arm — but legally they are Cambodians.

Many of those being sent back were children when their families left during or after the Khmer Rouge's brutal 1975-79 rule, when all of Cambodia became a work camp in a horrific experiment with radical communism. An estimated 1.7 million Cambodians died from disease, starvation, overwork and execution.

Tens of thousands of Cambodians settled in the United States, in places such as Los Angeles, Seattle, Houston, Chicago, Lowell, Mass., and Minneapolis. Many became American citizens; others did not — officially remaining foreigners.

Normally, provisions for the deportation of foreign criminals from the United States are included in extradition treaties the U.S. has with most nations. But no such treaty exists with Cambodia and it wasn't until last March that Cambodia finally agreed to accept deportees after years of U.S. pressure.

"This policy creates problems for Cambodia and the government," says Brig. Gen. Meach Sophana, the national immigration police chief. "We are concerned how these people will integrate without causing social problems."

Most of the deportees speak Khmer, Cambodia's language, but don't read or write it. Many have relatives in Cambodia but have little in common with them.

On landing in Phnom Penh, Samphos spent 12 days in detention before he was picked up by distant relatives. Officially, he was undergoing orientation, but in reality he and his relatives were being squeezed for bribes.

"All returnees interviewed on this subject report being approached by low-level Immigration Department officials for payments ranging from a few dollars for various privileges to several hundreds of dollars for early release," says Bill Herod, an American who heads a program trying to help the returnees with their transition into Cambodian life.

Samphos spent seven years in jail for taking part in the 1995 robbery of a jewelry store in Texas, says Lt. Col. Chharn Vutha, a senior immigration official.

While Samphos is at times exhilarated by his evolving new life, more often he is bored and short of money.

And it's sinking in that he cannot return to the United States.

He bathes in a roofless, wooden shack by pouring rain water from a basin over his head, and drinks "strange Coca-Cola that tastes not the same."

He also marvels at the shroud of darkness and utter stillness that blankets the provincial capital after sunset. There are few street lights and people tend to stay at home at night.

His friend, Vanna, who lived near Oakland, Calif., was sent back after serving time for shooting a rival gang member.

Vanna, who also asked that his family name not be published, has found a Cambodian girlfriend and has seen her almost daily for six weeks.

He says she hasn't allowed him to kiss her, though. "This is Cambodia," he says.

Vanna and Samphos are planning to move to Phnom Penh, the capital, because there is little wage work in Battambang, a rice-growing hub in the northwest.

The returnees tend to have a good time during their first few weeks in Cambodia, getting to know relatives and hanging out at nightclubs. Troubles have come later. There have been brushes with the law, scuffles with strangers and complications with girlfriends.

"They initially conduct themselves as being perceived as Cambodian tourists, but it's a difficult psychological adjustment when they start trying to find a place to live and a job," Herod says.

Cambodia is one of Asia's poorest countries and more than 36 percent of its 11 million citizens live on less than 50 cents a day. Jobs are scarce, and those that do exist — in garment factories, for example — pay $40 to $45 a month.

Fewer than 10 of the 36 returnees have jobs, Herod says. A few have meager personal savings but most are dependent on funds from family still in the United States.

Samphos says the idyllic Cambodia of his dreams won't be part of the hard-scrabble Cambodia of his future.

"I don't have a good feeling about this," he says.

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