Deportations and Identity: A Jewish-Cambodian Exchange

[This article was originally published on]

By Julia Baskin
Youth and Cultural Programs Assistant at the Cambodian Association of Illinois

On a Sunday afternoon in Chicago, 11 Jewish and Cambodian-American youth between the ages of 15 and 22 gathered around a table. An introductory question had been posed to them: Tell us about your family’s story. Responses varied – “I was born in a refugee camp in Thailand.” “My father had to flee Morocco.” “My parents only speak Cambodian.” “We came from Eastern Europe.”As they shared stories of their pasts, a tacit understanding began to form between participants – though their lives in America may appear to differ drastically, what the participants have in common are survival stories which have their roots elsewhere and which are colored by common themes of alienation, struggle, exile and survival.

These youth are from the Cambodian Association of Illinois (CAI) and Or Tzedek, a program of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs. CAI is a social-service community organization based in the Albany Park neighborhood of Chicago. Established in 1976 to support Cambodian refugees and genocide survivors, the organization is a hub for the Cambodian community in Chicago. It is home to the Cambodian American Heritage Museum and the Killing Fields Memorial, as well as programs focused on arts and culture, social justice, health, and education. Or Tzedek is an institute for social justice organized through JCUA at which teenagers engage in year-long, hands-on service projects and learn about Chicago issues from a Jewish social justice perspective.

CAI and Or Tzedek youth have come together in a collaborative dialogue project focusing on deportation and identity. Their goal is to educate themselves about deportation of Cambodian-Americans, build unity, and raise awareness about deportation and its effects on Chicago’s Cambodian community. Their first meeting focused on relationship-building and understanding the issues, using material like “Cambodian Home Boys,” a documentary about Cambodian-American deportees.

From 1975 to 1979, largely in reaction to the U.S. bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War, Cambodia was controlled by the Khmer Rouge, a communist guerrilla group intent on transforming Cambodia into an agrarian utopia. Wiping out the educated elite and dismantling its cultural infrastructure, the Khmer Rouge killed nearly one third of Cambodia’s seven million people through forced labor, torture, starvation, and oppression. Many survivors resettled in America as refugees in the 1980s. Transplanted from rural rice farms to inner city projects, often illiterate, and traumatized by genocide, the Cambodian-American community has since faced myriad social and economic challenges. Many refugees, especially those who arrived as children, fell into drug abuse, gang violence, and crime. Their crimes were generally not severe enough to place them at risk of deportation, but in 1996, the U.S. passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which expanded the list of deportable crimes to include such offenses as driving a vehicle with a broken headlight or while carrying an expired license. This legislation currently applies retroactively to non-citizens who have committed such crimes.

In 2002 the U.S. negotiated a Repatriation Agreement with Cambodia, putting Cambodian-Americans who were Legal Permanent Residents (as many Cambodian-Americans are) at risk of deportation. Many of those deported or currently at risk of this fate have served time in jail for their crimes, and now have families, jobs, and a clean post conviction record. From 2002 to 2004, 126 Cambodians were deported. Today 1,400 are at risk. They may be forcibly removed from their families without warning and held in detention centers for undisclosed periods of time. Having faced mass genocide barely 30 years ago, and still facing unemployment, low literacy, and prevalent mental and physical health challenges, this new round of seemingly arbitrary justice was and continues to be devastating for Cambodian-Americans.

It is this devastation that has pushed Cambodian-American youth to act. Khunthi Thach, a 19-year-old Cambodian participant in the project and current student at UIC, authored an article about deportation for the Multicultural Youth Project and hopes to increase the issue’s visibility. “It’s a big issue around [the Cambodian] community, and [American] youth don’t know it exists or what deportation even means,” she said. “People should know it’s happening.” Khunthi and her sister Navi are both part of the dialogue project. Their parents both fled the genocide, and Navi was born in a Thai refugee camp.

Where do Jewish youth fit in? Jewish-Cambodian partnerships are not new to Chicago. The communities share an understanding of what it means to experience genocide, survive it, and heal from its wounds. The Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago has been a core supporter of CAI, and an educator at the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie, Ill. sits on the board of the Cambodian American Heritage Museum. CAI has partnered with Jewish schools and AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps.

Or Tzedek youth were drawn to the project for varied reasons. Benjamin Jacobi, a 17-year-old at Lincoln Park High School, has seen friends struggle with immigration issues. Julia Webb, a 17-year-old at Highland Park High School, was moved to act after witnessing a deportation at the Broadview Detention Center in Illinois. When asked what was “Jewish” about their involvement in this project, both invoked the idea of tikkun olam, repairing the world. “A big part of Judaism is giving back to the world around you,” Jacobi commented. “Any action that does this no matter how large or small is ‘Jewish’.” Webb invoked Rabbi Hillel’s famous quote, “If not now, when?” to explain the source of her passion for the project: “Jewish teenagers should care because they’re the future. It is our responsibility to help. We’re all part of the same world.”

Indeed, despite their differences, participants are using their stories to relate to one another on a deeper level, and fostering these intercultural connections is a key goal of this project. Social justice starts with building unity, with creating a space where a Jewish 10th-grader from Northbrook, Ill. can bond with a Cambodian 20-year-old from Uptown, Chicago.

Youth activists are at the political forefront of immigration and deportation advocacy – their efforts pushed the DREAM Act to a vote in Congress. Now Jewish and Cambodian youth are uniting and using their knowledge as the millennial generation to get their message across. Whether through blogs, Facebook, hip hop, spoken word, fashion or art, they are making their voices heard, and they are doing it together.

For more information about deportation of Cambodian-Americans, visit the Southeast Asian Resource Action Center at, watch the documentary “Sentenced Home,” or contact Julia Baskin at

2 Responses to Deportations and Identity: A Jewish-Cambodian Exchange

  1. JCUA News says:

    […] JCUA’s teen social justice program. Or Tzedek had chutzpah to say that teens, yes teens, can take action for social change beyond volunteering at soup kitchens or painting murals. We trust our teens to engage in […]

  2. […] JCUA’s teen social justice program. Or Tzedek had chutzpah to say that teens, yes teens, can take action for social change beyond volunteering at soup kitchens or painting murals. We trust our teens to engage in […]

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