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Phoeun You & His Family: ‘The happiest moment of my life will be Phoeun coming home.’

July 19, 2022 Perspective

In partnership with Survival Media Agency, the Home, Not Heartbreak photo series, captures the stories of Californians organizing to end the state’s prison-to-ICE pipeline that cruelly separates thousands of families. While these community members represent just a small example of the thousands of California families and residents harmed by ICE transfers each year, their stories and leadership are inspiring people across the state to urge their legislators and Gov. Newsom to pass and sign the VISION Act (AB 937) and reunite immigrant families and communities.

“My grandmother’s big dream is to see Phoeun before she passes,” says Sy Vucic at a large family celebration for her birthday in Las Vegas. “My grandparents’ health has been deteriorating, and the only reason why they have been holding on is because they are wanting their son to come home.”

18 members of Phoeun You's family stand side by side in front of their home in Las Vegas.

Family members of Phoeun You gather for a photo on April 5, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Phoeun You is currently in ICE detention. (Bridget Bennett | Survival Media Agency)

At the family party, different generations gathered together, sharing food, eating cake, and singing karaoke. Still, Sy is yearning for the whole family to be reunited and dreaming of a day when her uncle, Phoeun You, can come home to his loved ones. In August 2021, the California Board of Parole Hearings recommended Phoeun be released from state prison in recognition of his rehabilitation and service, but unless Governor Newsom takes action soon, Phoeun faces imminent deportation to Cambodia, where he has no ties.

Family members of Phoeun You gather on the dining table and in the living room for a family dinner. (Bridget Bennett | Survival Media Agency)

“Phoeun does not know Cambodia,” explains Sy. “He is a foreigner in that country. He’s never visited since he migrated to America when he was five or six, and that’s going on 40 plus years.”

In 1978, when Phoeun was 4 years old, he and his family escaped genocide in Cambodia by traveling on foot through the jungle until they reached safety at a refugee camp in Thailand. After a year, the family was resettled in Utah, and then moved to Long Beach to be closer to other Cambodian families.

Like many Southeast Asian refugee youth resettled in underserved neighborhoods in the 1980s and 1990s, Phoeun was bullied at school and grew up in a dangerous environment. He and his family struggled with the unprocessed trauma of surviving war and genocide with no culturally comptent resources or mental health care. For a sense of belonging and protection, Phoeun joined a gang when he was 13 years old, and desperate to numb his and his family’s pain, he also began abusing drugs and alcohol.

By the age of 20, Phoeun only knew violence as a means of protection and survival. One day, while waiting to pick up his nephew from school, he and his family were attacked by a rival gang. In response to the attack, Phoeun tried to seek accountability in the only way he knew and drove for hours trying to find the rival gang and confront them, ultimately opening fire in a crowd that resulted in his incarceration.

Phoeun You’s mother Yai ma Mony, and father Ket You hold photos of him.

Phoeun You’s mother Yai ma Mony, and father Ket You hold photos of him. (Bridget Bennett | Survival Media Agency)

Over the past 26 years, Phoeun has undergone deep transformation, accountability, and healing. He became a founding member of ROOTS (Restoring Our Original True Selves), a self-help program that connects prisoners to their history and culture through education and restorative justice programs. He’s a certified counselor by Bay Area Women Against Rape, and has graduated from programs on Victim Offender Education, Addiction Recovery Counseling, and Non-Violent Communications.

At the family gathering, Sy and her relatives tried a few times to contact Phoeun, who is in ICE detention at Golden State Annex, before they reached him for a quick call to check-in. Based on the parole board’s recommendation, Phoeun should have already been home with his family this past January. But at 7am just a few days after New Year’s Day, California’s prison system collaborated with ICE to detain Phoeun again.

Phoeun You’s niece smiled while talking with Phoeun You on a video call

Sy Vucic, Phoeun You’s niece, talks with Phoeun You on a video call on April 5, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Phoeun You is currently in ICE detention. (Bridget Bennett | Survival Media Agency)

“I am afraid that Phoeun will be deported. He has such strong support from the whole entire family here in America, not only myself, but from aunts, cousins, and uncles. We are all willing to support him and help him as much as we can.”

As a ROOTS program founder and journalist for the San Quentin News, Phoeun has helped hundreds of people who are incarcerated in their journeys of rehabilitation and transformation, and raised awareness about the systemic change states like California can support to bring long-term healing and safety to poor communities like the one in which he grew up. Every day, more people are learning about Phoeun’s story and calling Governor Newsom’s office to urge him to pardon Phoeun so that he’s protected from deportation and the double punishment of Californians who came here as refugees.

“As a family, we’ve just suffered a lot because of the fact that Phoeun hasn’t been a part of a lot of our milestones,” Sy shares. “He didn’t see my children grow up, he didn’t get to be a part of that. And we just want the Governor to see that separating families is not only harmful for the incarcerated person, but also for the extended family. The happiest moment of my life will be Phoeun coming home.”

Family members of Phoeun You gather for a family dinner in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Bridget Bennett | Survival Media Agency)

Learn more about Phoeun You and his family and call Governor Newsom today to urge him to pardon Phoeun and pass the VISION Act (AB 937) so that no one else has to go through what Phoeun, Sy, and their family have endured.

Photos by Bridget Bennett | Survival Media Agency