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Phoeun You: ‘We are resilient people. I stem from that. I can use that to fuel my future.’

January 17, 2023 Perspective

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, their stories and leadership are inspiring people to take action for immigrant rights and racial justice.

In 2022, we shared the story of Phoeun You and his family, including photos from a family gathering in Las Vegas. Months later, despite a massive surge of community support for Phoeun’s pardon, ICE deported Phoeun to Cambodia. We spoke with Phoeun about his reflections on heritage, and his continued fight to come home. Photos by Joyce Xi and Phoeun You.

“I wake up, make breakfast, check my emails, do a little bit of push-ups,” shares Phoeun You. Phoeun, a beloved family member, friend, and community leader who came to the U.S. as a refugee when he was four years old, was deported to Cambodia on August 16, 2022.

In the weeks and days before California’s prison system and ICE worked together to deport Phoeun, hundreds of people throughout the state called, emailed, protested, and took other action to support Phoeun. Now, even as Phoeun rebuilds his life thousands of miles away from his loved ones and community in California, the fight for his return home continues.

Phoeun wears a blue t-shirt and glances out from his balcony.

Now in Cambodia, Phoeun is trying to rebuild a life in a country he doesn’t know. Like other community members who have been deported, he’s simultaneously learning a new language, trying to create new community connections, and building a career that makes ends meet. (Joyce Xi)

Take Action: Send a message to Governor Newsom urging him to pardon Phoeun so that he can come home to California!

Just a few months after being deported to Phnom Penh, Phoeun is learning about his family’s history in Cambodia and his ancestors. “What I’ve learned is that we’re resilient people. We’ve been plagued with a lot of trauma. We’ve faced genocide and a huge number of people lost families and live their livelihood and had to be uprooted, and eventually they end up starting a new life or continuing on. This is my roots. This is my people having to understand that we are resilient people. I stem from that. I can also use that to fuel my future.”

Phoeun has training in photography, and as he explores more of Cambodia, he’s sharing photos on social media with followers and supporters across the world. He says, “It’s me posting the richness of this culture. People going about their daily lives, fishing and selling food, and kids going to school. It’s important to highlight Cambodia’s resilience and its struggles at the same time.”

Phoeun’s optimism and resolve are infectious. At a large rally in Oakland to stop his deportation, dozens of people shared stories of how his mentorship and guidance have been essential to their healing, family reunification, and activism. Today, Phoeun says, “we can’t give in because the only way things are going to change is if we continue to climb this very high mountain.”

Phoeun is climbing his own mountain in seemingly endless ways. In honor of his birthday last month, he asked people to donate to 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. Days before, he joined a local walk to raise funds for cancer treatments. In November, he led a restorative justice workshop for students in UC Berkeley’s Asian American Political Activation Program. All the while, he continues to fight for a pardon so that he can come home, advocate for others’ pardons so that immigrants and refugees aren’t ripped away from their homes, and organize for state and federal policies that would prevent deportation from happening to anyone else.

Phoeun, wearing a white t-shirt, pours some soup in a bowl.

While fighting for his pardon, Phoeun continues to volunteer in service to his community.

“It’s not just about me. It’s about people who are facing the same situation as I am, and who’s going to follow me. If I can stop and break that chain now, it’ll mean people behind me are no longer suffering. Home is in the States. That’s all I know. I miss my family. I miss my community, and if anything, I really, really want that opportunity to give back.”

Phoeun’s care for his community in Cambodia and in the U.S. offer a window into the work he would have been doing in Oakland if he was back home. Just a month after Phoeun was deported he organized a community conversation with over a hundred supporters, giving them updates and ways they can stay involved in the fight to end ICE transfers and reunite families.

On the call, Oakland City Council President Nikki Bas shared, “Words can hardly describe what has happened to you knowing how many people, how many lives you have helped, and to know how our government has harmed you and your family…When I think about the work that you have done, what you have experienced, the contributions that you have made, I know that when I call the governor’s office to advocate on your behalf, I can say without a doubt that as a member of our Oakland community, the violence prevention work that you could be doing here at home would make such a big difference.”

Phoeun says today
, “I didn’t get a chance to serve the community. I feel like I have a lot to offer. My personal stories can touch a lot of lives, and hopefully heal our lives if given the chance.”

Phoeun also encourages people who are inspired by his story to learn more about the U.S. government’s legacy of imperialism and capitalist violence in other countries, and its subsequent failure to repair those harms or care for refugees.

He reflects on the legacy of U.S. bombing of Cambodia, and then the lack of support for refugee families “who were dropped off in the middle of nowhere and have to fend for ourselves” in the U.S. He sees parallels in the experiences of Palestinians and Afghans who lived through U.S.-sponsored wars, making them refugees who are now trying to survive in the U.S. without safe and affordable housing, language assistance, health care and trauma support, and other essentials. “They don’t see the devastation that their actions cause because [the government] doesn’t follow through in the help that they claim to be giving.”

Phoeun sits in front of his laptop.

A pardon can bring Phoeun home to his family, friends, and community. “I want to be back home. I've missed you guys. But this is a journey I have to endure for right now.”

Phoeun is clear about the systemic change we need for a safer world. “America says, ‘We’re all about keeping families together, building a better community.’ But, separation and deportation really contradict those core values of American culture. Strong family bonds build a strong community, and a strong community builds a better country.”

Join the movement for immigrant rights and strong families and communities. Tell Governor Newsom that you support Phoeun’s pardon, and urge him to protect immigrants and refugees across our state.