Suffering from cancer and separated from his family, Sokchea Voeun is back in Cambodia — a country he has never known.
Voeun, 40, was an infant when his father brought their family to a refugee camp in Thailand to escape the Khmer Rouge regime that ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. They arrived in the U.S. a few years later.
In April, Voeun was one of more than 40 refugees deported back to Cambodia. His four children still live in the U.S. Two of them live with his sister, Malinda Chhoeun, in Rochester. She said she is working with the U.S. State Department to appeal Voeun’s deportation.
“I don’t think it’s fair at all because he’s sick,” she said.
More than 10,000 Cambodians came to Minnesota after seeking refuge in the U.S. following the Vietnam War. Before being deported to Cambodia, Voeun had lived in Rochester for about 15 years. His family arrived in the U.S. in 1984, initially locating in Massachusetts.
According to the State Department, Voeun and the others faced deportation because they had been convicted of crimes. The U.S. government is expected to send a total of 200 people back to Cambodia this year.
Voeun served time in prison after being convicted of felony domestic assault and felony making terroristic threats to cause bodily harm. After discharge from prison, he was picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Chhoeun said she didn’t hear from her brother for more than a week until he called to tell her he had been in a Texas hospital near where he was being detained. He had serious health problems during detention and was eventually hospitalized and diagnosed with stomach cancer, he told her. Soon after his discharge from the hospital, he was sent to Battambang province in Cambodia.
Almost immediately, he began having health complications. He spent about three weeks in a hospital there.
“He’s in pretty bad shape right now,” Chhoeun said. “I cry every night when I think of him.”
The two talk via Facebook. However, recently, he has been in pain and unable to speak much or swallow. Voeun had been discharged from the hospital in Battambang to die at home instead of the hospital, he told her. Chhoeun said he needs treatment and medicine that’s only available in the Cambodian capital city of Phnom Penh. Right now, he has neither the money to travel there nor for treatment since he’s unable to work in his current condition.
Chhoeun set up a Go Fund Me campaign to try to raise money to get her brother to Phnom Penh. However, she worries she’ll never see him alive again.
“I would like to see him before his last breath,” she said.
Court records show Voeun’s most recent arrest was for threatening to stab his teenage son at their Rochester home before school in October 2014. Voeun was drunk at the time of the incident, his son told officials. Voeun was sentenced to five years in prison after pleading guilty to the two felony charges in April 2015 and was discharged from prison in February last year.
Chhoeun said Voeun isn’t a dangerous person, but has trouble with alcohol and has been influenced by some outdated Asian ideas on child discipline. What he did was wrong, she said. However, getting sent to a country he hasn’t known in his health was a death sentence.
“It’s not like you murdered somebody,” she said. “He didn’t steal anything — it’s not what he deserves.”
Chhoeun remembers her dad bringing their family to Thailand when she was a child. It was about the time Khmer Rouge soldiers killed her grandfather in front of her and the rest of his family. The Khmer Rouge came to power after years of U.S. bombing operations during the Vietnam War.
Chhoeun’s father put her in a basket and packed what they could carry. The family didn’t eat for days, slept in dense forests and didn’t start fires for warmth or cooking out fear it would give away their location. She recalls her dad helping other family members — her mother, grandmother, aunt and brother — across a river one at a time.
“I remember that river — a lot of leeches,” she said.
She recalls seeing people dead along her travels — killed by the genocidal Khmer Rouge or along their journey. The ones on the ground, it was hard to tell. Khmer Rouge left some victims tied to trees as an example to others.
The idea her father risked so much to bring his family to safety only to have her brother sent back to a country he doesn’t know to die alone breaks her heart, she said.
A refugee herself, Chhoeun said she is working to gain full citizenship in hopes of visiting her brother and still be allowed to return to the U.S.
“I wish I could go see him, but right now I have no money,” she said.
Voeun’s teen children living with her also wonder if they’ll see their father again, she said.
“They said, ‘is Dad going to die?’ I don’t know what to say.”
Source: Post Bulletin