December 31, 2008
Sophya Chum is only 24, but already she jokes about going through a mid-twenties crisis. With the recent national debate over immigration picking up fervor, her fatigue is understandable. While most people in their early twenties are just be beginning to chart career paths, Sophya has been involved in immigrant rights and refugee work for nearly ten years with countless hours devoted to empowering young Southeast Asian women and helping make sure that the issue of Cambodian deportation is on the local and national agendas.
Currently, Sophya is a program coordinator with Khmer Girls in Action (KGA), a Long Beach-based community organization for young Southeast Asian women. Her daily work revolves around conducting workshops with a group of twenty-one young women between the ages of 14 and 17, whom she affectionately calls her “little sisters.” One of Sophya’s most tangible accomplishments is the Learning to Impact for Empowerment (LIFE) program, which works to build the leadership skills of young women through political trainings and after-school tutoring. And she juggles her intense, full-time work with classes at Long Beach City College.
Her work began, ironically, with ice cream. Sophya was a sophomore at Long Beach Poly High School when the organization, then known as a Southern Californian branch of Bay Area-based Asian Pacific Islanders for Reproductive Health (APIRH), came to her school to recruit new members. “My friends were like ‘Hey! Fill out this form and they give you ice cream!'” she remembers. “I’m like ‘cool, let’s do it!'”.
Soon, Sophya began to accompany her best friend to meetings. The gatherings were mainly social–a safe space away from home and school to talk about relationships and teenage anxieties. They also worked to educate and organize young women around immigrant and refugee rights and reproductive justice. Organizers used popular education and digital video-making to discuss the often taboo issue of teenage reproductive justice in a community whose elders tend to be more conservative about any talk of sexuality.
As the group transitioned to become Khmer Girls in Action (KGA), its own independent organization focused specifically on Long Beach’s Southeast Asian community, Sophya remained as one of only eight original members.
In 2002, the organization’s work on reproductive justice collided with a political moment that saw Cambodian American youth come under siege. In March of that year, the United States and the Cambodian governments signed the US-Cambodia repatriation agreement, which opened the door for hundreds of Cambodian permanent citizens with criminal convictions to be deported. The treaty worked in tandem with the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, which broadened the list of potential deportees to include felony convicts. It also stripped convicted felons of their previous right to legal hearings to assess whether they still had family in Cambodia, or a firm grasp of the language.