The answer is entirely in your hands. You may need to make some adjustments in your expectations and lifestyle- and we don’t mean to make light of these as some will be traumatic to you and others – but you will survive. Scores of returnees have preceded you and help is available. You will not be alone!
What can I do to prepare myself for the future?
- Save money for your future. Whatever happens, having access to a little extra cash won’t hurt. If you are deported, a few thousand dollars could go a long way toward getting you set up in a little business.
- Consider setting up a power of attorney so some trusted friend or relative can manage any legal affairs if you are suddenly detained for deportation. A power of attorney would permit someone you designate to dispose of any property you own (car, motorbike, etc.), gain access to any bank accounts you have so the money could be transferred to you and handle any other outstanding legal matters according to your instructions. A power of attorney agreement can be quite narrow and specific (e.g. authorizing the disposition of a vehicle) or quite general. You and your legal advisor should carefully decide what is best for you, but the documents should be written up, signed, notarized and put away in a safe place long before they are needed.
- You should also consider developing skills that might be in demand in Cambodia. For example, certification as a barber, mechanic,electrician, plumber or computer repairman or experience as a web site designer, database programmer, audio-visual technician, cook, waiter,receptionist or telephone operator would make you more marketable than experience as a fork lift operator or work on an assembly line.
- If you have a good basic education and have good language skills, consider getting a certificate in the Teaching of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) or accounting or bookkeeping. There are always jobs available for people with those qualifications – especially those who are also bilingual.
- Brush up on your Khmer language skills (both oral and written). Many Cambodian-American communities have Khmer language classes available or you can use free on line Khmer language materials. You can also listen to Khmer language broadcasts over the Internet.
- If you already read and write Khmer, you might want to improve your vocabulary by going to the internet and reading contemporary Khmer newspapers and magazines. Good translators and interpreters are always in demand and are well paid.
Is it true that the US government (or the Cambodian government or some other agency) gives each returnee some amount of money for resettlement costs?
No,that isn’t true. No cash is given to returnees by either government or any other agency. Funds made available for resettlement assistance can only be used to provide needed services. These funds cannot be used for cash payments to returnees.
What should I carry with me to Cambodia?
- At least US$20 but not more than $100, enough to cover phone calls and incidentals, but not enough to appear wealthy. The money you saved in the States can safely be transferred to you after you are settled in Cambodia.
- Photocopies only of documents (certificates, diplomas, driver’s licenses, etc.). US authorities may take away originals. You can have originals sent to you later.
- Addresses and phone numbers of friends and family in Cambodia. Before leaving the U.S., try to establish contact with people in Cambodia who might be able to assist you in your transition.
- E-mail addresses of friends and family in the U.S. You will have access to the Internet and it is a fast and relatively inexpensive way to communicate.
How will I actually get to Cambodia?
Those being deported to Cambodia are usually gathered at a holding facility in the western or southwestern US. Groups being deported to Cambodia usually consist of 12 to 15 individuals. You will travel to Cambodia on a commercial jet. Deportees are accompanied by US Marshals including a medical officer. You will be restrained in flexible (nylon) handcuffs during flight and will not have access to any personal belongings. You will be required to speak only in English. Recent groups of Cambodian deportees have been flown to the Philippines with deportees to that country, then on to Cambodia. The flights are long and boring but otherwise unexceptional.
What happens on arrival?
What are the conditions at the Immigration Department compound?
- You will be able to receive visitors, both family members and advocates who are committed to helping you through the repatriation process.
- Staff from RISC will be permitted to visit you in the Immigration Department compound. Returnees, like yourself, working for RISC, will be able to meet and talk with you in order to provide support, answer questions and give advice. RISC has no authority inside the compound, however, and staff enter as guests of the Cambodian authorities and will conduct themselves accordingly.
- The food served is Cambodian and is in adequate supply.
- Regardless of what you may hear, the guards and officials with whom you will have routine contact at the Immigration Department compound have no authority to determine the time of your release. Please keep this in mind.
- Be prepared for boredom and uncertainty while you are staying in the compound. If you are there more than a day or two, you will almost certainly have the opportunity to play sports,walk around inside the compound, receive visitors, etc.
What happens when I am released from the Cambodian Immigration compound?
What sort of identification documents will I have?
Is it true that returnees are discriminated against by local Cambodians?
I have tattoos – won’t this be a problem for me?
How can I communicate with my family and friends in the US?
What should I wear in Cambodia?
How can I speed up my integration process?
What if I have asthma or diabetes or HIV or some other chronic physical or psychological condition?
What about the climate?
What about traffic?
I am Cambodian, but I don’t really know much about Cambodian culture. What is “culture shock” and should I worry about that?
- Retreat – Some returnees slip into heavy alcohol or drugs use or literally retreat into a bedroom or a bar and try to limit their contact with the real Cambodia. They stop looking for jobs or quit jobs they have and break off relations with friends.
- Adjustment – Over time, most returnees settle into positive, supportive relationships, find employment, adjust to the culture and climate and start new lives here. It is not at all unusual to hear returnees who have been here for two or three years say they would not return to live in the States if they could.
Reverse culture shock – returning to one’s own culture after being gone for some time – also has its unique challenges. You may expect to be able to fit in quickly or you may choose not to fit in or the people around you may be confused that you look Khmer but don’t act or sound Khmer. You may be regarded as an overseas (i.e. rich) Khmer here for a brief visit rather than a new member of the community. Crossing your legs in a certain way or stating your opinion too directly may be regarded as offensive when the same action by a foreign resident would be quite acceptable because, as a Khmer, it is assumed you should know better.
In some cases, you can actively prepare for the transition (e.g. study Khmer language and culture). In other cases it may simply be helpful to understand what is happening inside your own mind, to know that it is not unusual and to deal with these challenges as intentionally and creatively as possible. Help is available.
What about the Customs & Culture?
- Show respect for Buddhist monks, temples, images and statues and members of the Royal family (including their images on display in most public buildings and many private homes). This is extremely important. Any slight – intended or not – against a symbol of the Buddha or the Royal family would be regarded as offensive to all Cambodians.
- Behavior acceptable in the US may not be acceptable in Cambodia. Loud talk or actions perceived to be obnoxious, aggressive, rude or insulting could provoke violent reaction from locals – including armed security personnel. There have been several incidents in which returnees were beaten up as the result of a misunderstood look or gesture.
- The carrying of unlicensed weapons is illegal. There are police checkpoints where random checks are done. If weapons are discovered, this will result in a fine and/or imprisonment. Security forces are authorized to use lethal force against anyone attempting to flee a checkpoint – and do.
- Dates are given in the order day + month + year. September 27, 1978 is written as 27/09/78. April 3, 1978 is written 03/04/78.
- Cambodian names are given in the order family name + given name. (e.g. Smith John)
- Khmer is the official language and some older people speak French, but English is Cambodia’s second language. Cambodians are often eager to practice English with anyone who speaks it and many returnees teach conversational English formally or informally.
Is the water safe to drink?
What about the food?
What kind of money is used?
This Guide is based on a concept developed and researched in 2002 by Mandy Lee, then an intern at the Midwest Immigration and Human Rights Center in Chicago. The current Guide has been updated to reflect new information and experience, but RISC wishes to thank Ms. Lee for her initial work and her encouragement in compiling this document.
You can also download the survival guide as a PDF document.