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Sunday, February 04, 2007

Man banished to the land his family once fled

By Kristi Heim

Seattle Times staff reporter

CHAMCAR SVAY, Cambodia — In this lush countryside, rice farmers toiling in the harsh sun shade themselves with straw hats or traditional head scarves.

Ho Beua stands out in his purple Washington Huskies baseball cap. Beua is surely the only farmer in this tiny village who once enjoyed a prosperous life in Seattle, days when his only care in the world was whether his favorite team would beat the Cougars.

At 41, Beua now works the fields from sunrise to sundown. He worries about whether he will grow enough rice to eat this year or catch enough minnows to eat that day. Or how his three children will grow up without him in the United States, a place he may never see again.

Beua left Cambodia as a child when his family fled the murderous Khmer Rouge regime, an experience that still haunts him. The family came to the United States as refugees when he was 14 and settled in Bellingham.

But in 2004, Beua was expelled, part of a wave of 1,500 Cambodians ordered sent back to the Southeast Asian nation for committing crimes the U.S. government has deemed "deportable offenses."

In America, Beua was no angel. But he never imagined one of his missteps — a drunken fight with his girlfriend — would send him back to Cambodia 25 years later.

"I regret I threw that punch," he said. The situation has thrust returnees like Beua into a strange limbo. They didn't become U.S. citizens, which would have protected them against deportation. But they did become thoroughly Americanized, making it difficult to fit back into their native country.

For Beua, deportation has sent his life on a strange journey backward. The former welder, who once earned $2,000 a month at a Kirkland factory and spent weekends salmon fishing with his brothers, now ekes out a living as a subsistence farmer.

But the hardest thing, he said, is facing a life without his children and his parents.
I miss them all the time," he said. "If I don't think about it, it's OK. If I think about it, it's not OK. It's too hard."

Beua arrived in Phnom Penh 2-½ years ago with a single lifeline — a fellow Cambodian had given him the name of his relatives in the remote village of Chamcar Svay. As soon as Beua was released from immigration jail, he headed there.

What he found was a place stuck in another time. Cows pull wooden carts, there's no electricity or running water, and some thatched houses are barely patched to keep the rain out. After a storm, villagers have to wade through ankle-deep muddy water.

Beua quickly landed in the hospital after eating something that caused him to vomit blood for a week. The sickness lasted a month.

Ry, a relative of the Cambodian man who helped Beua find a place to stay, sat with him in the hospital, then took care of him at home every day until he recovered. A month later, they got married.

Ry is pregnant. At 28, she has a shy demeanor and a face that shows the strain of a hard rural life. Ry said she is grateful Beua can help her family, including her young daughter.

Though he loves his new family, Beua says, "If I had a choice I wouldn't be here. But now I'm stuck here."

At home in Marysville, Beua's 65-year-old mother, Ngoy Ngep, agonizes over her eldest son's banishment to a place the family escaped in 1976.

With Pol Pot's henchmen on their heels, the family fled to the Thai border by foot, sleeping at night in wet rice paddies. During the two-day journey, her father, sisters and nephews were killed by the Khmer Rouge.

Somehow, Ngep survived and kept her own family of seven children intact. Until now.
"I miss him, I love him. But too far," she said, looking down at her hands. Her soft voice trails off as she begins to cry.

Beua's father, 68-year-old Beua Pruel, doesn't understand what happened to his son, but he is less sympathetic. "If he was a good guy, they wouldn't send him back," he said.

Ho Beua was one of many refugees caught up in a 1996 immigration-law change that greatly expanded the list of crimes committed in the U.S. that would lead to deportation.

The changes also made it much more difficult to get waivers, which in the past had been granted to offenders who had been rehabilitated or could show deportation would hurt family members.
Lacking extradition agreements with Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and other countries, the U.S. could not send refugees from those countries back immediately.

Following the Sept. 11 attacks, the U.S. pressured Cambodia to sign an extradition treaty. It was signed in 2002, setting Beua's departure in motion.

Nothing came easy for Beua in America. He didn't know a word of English when he first arrived, struggled in school and dropped out of ninth grade when he was 19.

And he had difficulty coming to terms with his past. When the family gathered at home to watch "The Killing Fields," a movie depicting the Khmer Rouge atrocities, Beua got upset and refused to join them.

"He didn't talk about it much," a brother recalled. "The times he did, he cried." Beua had a lengthy record of run-ins with the law, including convictions for drunken driving and assault. In 1996, Beua spent four months in jail on an assault charge for hitting his girlfriend. She bailed him out, and eventually they had a child together.

That crime led to his expulsion eight years later. His family, left behind, has paid a high price.
Beua had been raising his teenage daughter, Shantel, now 16, by himself in a Mountlake Terrace apartment. The two had grown close.

These days, Shantel and Beua's son, Anthony, 19, avoid talking about their father's absence. They now live with Beua's sister-in-law, Marissa Beua, in Marysville.

"They can't face that their dad is in Cambodia," she said. "It hurts them too much." Anthony, tall and handsome, looks like an Asian rapper in a plaid shirt, loose jeans, gold earrings and a baseball cap. Asked how he's coping without his dad, he replies "I'm cool." But after a few minutes, he chokes up and leaves the room.

Beua's youngest son, Tapi, turned 10 last year and lives with his mother in Ferndale. Ho Beua hasn't been able to reach Tapi by phone for months.

In all, more than 160 Cambodian refugees have been deported since 2002, about a dozen from Seattle. The last wave was in December, and hundreds of others in the pipeline may be sent back at any time.

Some were hardened criminals taken right after prison. Others, like Beua, left steady jobs, families and lives they had worked to rebuild.

Unprepared for life in Cambodia, some fall into local gangs, drive loud dirt bikes through the streets in a show of bravado, and use readily available drugs. A few have become monks; about a dozen have gone to prison.

The readjustment problems were so severe that the U.S. government began funding a nonprofit organization in Phnom Penh to assist the deportees. Now called the Returnee Integration Support Program, it teaches basic survival skills, including Cambodian culture and language.

Many Cambodians are wary of the returnees. Some are amazed anyone could fail in a place like America: One saying in Cambodia goes, "They couldn't make it in heaven, so they were sent back to hell."

Beua spent his first week in Cambodia in a local immigration jail. He had no friends or relatives in the country, uncertain of what to do next or where to go. "It was like, man, I'm lost. I don't know any of these people," Beua said. Cambodia seemed the recurrence of a bad dream.

He remembered days of hard labor and nights of fear as a boy under the Khmer Rouge, which killed as many as 2 million Cambodians. "I was starving," he said. "I had to go steal at night just to feed my little brothers and sisters. If I got caught, it was death."

In Beua's new home, reminders of that time crop up unexpectedly. Land mines still litter the terrain around Chamcar Svay. Beua and his wife were picking bamboo shoots in the nearby mountains recently when he almost sat on an unexploded grenade.

To his neighbors, Beua is still the American. He can speak Cambodian but he can't read or write it. No one around speaks English, so he sometimes resorts to talking to himself.

"Too bad about the Seahawks," he greets his visitor from Seattle. He carries a mobile phone, a treasured connection to the world outside the village, and keeps up with Seattle sports teams in weekly phone calls from his mother in Marysville.

Dressed in the clothes he packed from Seattle two years ago — long gray denim shorts and a microfiber T-shirt, he is 30 pounds lighter with skin baked deep brown by the sun. "A couple months in the rice field," he explains.

Watching the frail and stooped man who is now his father-in-law, Beua learned to plow the fields, transplant rice seedlings and cast a fishing net.

It's a far cry from grabbing his fishing poles and driving to Edmonds, where his last photo in the U.S. was taken. The framed picture shows Beua proudly displaying a giant salmon caught off the pier.

His wife says the family depends on him to eat. But without money sent by his relatives in Marysville, he couldn't survive, let alone buy any extras such as mosquito repellent, clothes for the kids or a TV.

Even by Cambodia's modest standards, Beua struggles. He dismisses suggestions he look for work as a welder or a tour guide. In Cambodia, he has no connections or education. And workers make about $30 a month, what he used to spend on dinner in the States.

Beua's home consists of two raised wooden platforms covered in plastic mats and protected by a long thatched roof. In the back of one platform is a makeshift stove. The other platform holds a television and stereo and functions as sleeping quarters for eight people.

"We eat here, we sleep here," he said. "It's what I call a shack. A shelter is better than this. A house got walls, lights, a bathroom."

A large clay urn holds rainwater for drinking and cooking. Another holds river water for bathing. His meal today consists of tiny silver minnows he caught in the river and grilled over an open fire. "What you see today, it's gone tomorrow," he said.

Even in this remote village, one thing brings Beua instantly back home to Seattle. "I want to get depressed, I just pull these out," he said, retrieving four scratched and grimy CD cases: Dr. Dre, Mariah Carey, a hip-hop mix and Journey.

He doesn't play them too often because it's like opening a wound. But today he's already thinking about the past. He takes out a Thunder Lite car battery, clamps cables to each side of the battery like jump-starting a car, and then powers the stereo up. He puts on a Journey song: "Don't stop believin', hold on to the feelin'... "

The music makes him cry.

"Whenever we got together for Christmas or birthdays we listened to it," he said. It's hard to imagine Beua, this weary, middle-aged farmer, young and free and cruising past the lights of downtown on the way to a party. "I thought I had everything set," he said.

In the oppressive afternoon heat, he sits on the wooden platform, batting away mosquitoes.
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