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.
Southeast Asian community organizations, such as KGA, began to mobilize against the repatriation agreement. They argued that deportation was an unfair punishment, especially against young people. Indeed, most of those facing deportation were known as members of the “1.5 generation,” people born in Cambodia and raised in the US. A survey by Washington, DC-based Southeast Asia Resource Center (SEARAC) found that most people being deported had initially come to the US at an average age of nine, and spent over twenty years living with their families in the United States.
Sophya’s work took on a decidedly more personal tone when her older sister faced deportation. Like many of the young people being sent back to Cambodia, Sophya’s sister (who preferred not to use her name for this story) came to the US with her parents from a refugee camp after fleeing the Vietnam War and deadly Khmer Rouge regime. In total, the Khmer Rouge claimed nearly two million lives and refugees still held the trauma of forced work camps, torture and seeing loved ones brutally murdered.
Like many people in the 1.5 generation, Sophya’s sister was the oldest of her five siblings, and the only one born in Cambodia. She came with her family to the US when she was five, didn’t know any English, and settled with her parents in Long Beach, which has the largest Cambodian population in the US, according to 2000 Census data. Unlike her younger siblings who were born in the US and have the privilege of American citizenship, 1.5 generationers’ green card status makes any encounters with the the law potentially disastrous.
During KGA’s writing workshops, where participants are encouraged to write from another person’s perspective, Sophya began writing about her sister. After she shared her story, the organization took up her case as a primary cause. She was encouraged to share her painful family story with others to show that the issue was a larger community problem, not one that needed to be faced alone by individuals. “I was really proud…talking about my family…. And just telling [the community] that this is normal and connecting it with other people,” she says.
The organization held protests and rallies against the rising numbers of deportations. Ultimately, they were able to forestall Sophya’s sister return to Cambodia, but her case is still pending along with hundreds of young Cambodians who face forcible deportation on questionable charges at any time. The experience left a lasting impression on Sophya. “I always preach that you can’t just keep things to yourself,” she says. “Your story is not just your story. It could be someone else’s story.”
Moreover, Sophya’s work highlights the importance of checking your own backyard for potential avenues for civic engagement. Most recently, she helped train a group of young women to protest in opposition of California’s Proposition 4, a recently defeated ballot initiative that would have required parental consent for abortions by underage women.
For people interested in advocating for the rights of immigrants and refugees, Sophya suggests starting simple. “Find a community [you’re] interested in learning about and creating change in,” she says. “And begin to volunteer.”
Sophya hopes to build the leadership skill of the young women around her, so they can one day take on her leadership role. “I feel like I was given this opportunity to be part of this organization, and I want to be able to expand KGA in that way where it is still a resource and young women and men can get access to it through the work that we do.”