In her tidy, wood-floored apartment in Phnom Penh, Sophea looks straight into the camera as she sits for her portrait.
It’s not the first time she’s been photographed by a news outlet, but for the last shoot – back in 2013 for an interview with the Southeast Asia Globe – she covered her eyes with a krama, and her mouth with her hand. On her insistence, her identity was completely obscured.
Speaking to Post Weekend earlier this week, she explained that she didn’t want people to associate the confident, sociable Cambodian-American that she was known as around Phnom Penh with the story she was telling: she was a “deportee”, whose permanent residency status in the US had been revoked following time spent in prison.
“If people ask, I’ll just brush it off most of the time,” 33-year-old Sophea, who still prefers not to give her family name, said. “I’m me, but people judge you. Sometimes you feel judged. That’s what you try to avoid by not telling people.”
But today, Sophea has no reason to hide from the camera. Last month, she made the decision to “go public” with her story on one of the most visible platforms possible when she launched a crowd-funding campaign through the website GoFundMe, appealing to strangers to contribute towards the cost of her son flying out to visit her from the US.
As she explains in the campaign, it’s been four years since she last saw her 12-year-old child.
The story she tells of their separation is a variation on the painful narrative common to the 400-odd deportees (Sophea prefers the term “exiles”) currently living in Cambodia. She was born in a Thai refugee camp, grew up in the US and was jailed in 2006 for credit card fraud. On being released, she was picked up by immigration and told she would be going to Cambodia, but it was another four years before the travel documents came through.
In 2011 she was plucked from the life she had remade for herself and flown to Phnom Penh.
What makes Sophea’s story unusual is the fact that she is a woman – one of only a dozen who have been sent to Cambodia from the US under the 2002 extradition agreement between the two countries.
Of that dozen, she is the only one who has chosen to put her life in the spotlight.
She says her decision to go public was partly personal. After bouncing around from job to job for her first three years in the Kingdom, she now has a stable career as a ninth-grade teacher. “I’m at a good place in my life, so I can be open about it,” she said.
But she also believes that her testimony has the potential to rally support for a sometimes maligned community.
“I think opening up could change the situation or impact it in some way, as a woman with a child,” she said. “There are positive things going on.”
Sophea is referring in particular to the work of a recently formed advocacy group 1 Love Cambodia, a four-month-old offshoot of the US-based network 1 Love Movement.
Heng Sophea, 1 Love coordinator, said that he had “pretty much nominated Sophea to be the PR person for our community” when they were trying to decide how best to go forward with their quest for a reversal of the controversial legislation.
“Everyone has these hardships, but naturally, people will look at a woman and be more sympathetic than of a man,” he said, adding that Sophea’s personal characteristics – “she’s very sociable” – also made her a good spokesperson.
Sophea said that putting a “woman’s face” to the anguish faced by deportees torn apart from their families was a significant motivator for her stepping forward.
But she also wants to highlight the fact that the experience of being a deportee is different for men and women, in particular when it came to social stigma faced in Cambodia.
She mimicked the typical local reaction: “Men? They’re wild, they do stuff, but as a woman you should have a good head on your shoulders. You shouldn’t make mistakes, basically.”
Of the dozen women here, Sophea says she only has one friend – also a teacher – who is involved in the community’s activism.
Even on condition of total anonymity, Sophea could not find any women willing to talk to Post Weekend about their experiences. “All the other women aren’t as comfortable sharing their stories,” she said. “[They’re] just having their own lives.”
Because of the small sample size, and the tendency for women to stay away from the activist community, not much is known about the difficulties faced by female deportees outside of fragmented anecdotes.
At the Returnee Integration Support Centre (RISC), director Kem Villa said that he was aware that their services were not cut out for dealing well with women.
“It makes it harder for us,” he said, explaining that the rooms where RISC housed recent arrivals in need of a place to stay were all dormitories – if a woman comes to RISC, the organisation will either pay for her to stay in a hotel, or “help her get out of Phnom Penh”.
Villa said that his organisation was currently supporting two women through monthly stipends – one disabled, the other suffering from mental health problems.
But he emphasised that the low involvement of women in the deportee community could be viewed in a positive light: “We have females who come [to RISC] and within a few months or so, they pick themselves up and got on their feet; they get a pretty good job and they want to move on. And we want them to move on – that’s good for them.”
Sophea agreed, adding that she thinks certain aspects of the deportee experience are easier because of her gender. She cited finding a good job as the prime example: male deportees with tattoos and who speak in US street slang often face barriers to employment in the Kingdom.
She has no qualms about her personal decision to go public. In the month since it launched, her “Mother & Son Reunion” crowd-funding campaign has received over $2,000 in donations.
In an update posted on Thursday, Sophea announced to backers that her son would be flying out for the first three weeks of June.
She worries that the reunion could be “a bit awkward”. Her son says he can’t remember the last time they saw each other in real life, and he’s grown from a child to a teenager who’s “taller than me,” according to height comparisons made over Skype.
But she’s overwhelmingly thankful for the backing she has received to make the meeting possible, much of it from strangers.
“I did not think I would have that much support,” she said. “I just put it out there hoping.”