Bunly Bou knew he was no longer in America after watching a car accident on the frenetic, unruly streets of Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
A man driving an expensive car rammed into a poor man on a motorcycle.
Even though it was his fault, the rich man got out of the car and started kicking the poor man while Bou watched in horror. Because the poor man had no money, the rich man took his motorcycle.
“Over here, if you are rich, you are rich. If you are poor, you are poor. There is no in-between,” Bunly said.
Early in September, the former Lodi resident found himself dropped into a country where he knows only one person and barely speaks the language. He left behind a wife and five children, all U.S. citizens.
Now, he struggles to find his way in an alien and hostile environment while his wife wrestles with making ends meet — and dreams of one day reuniting his family.
Since arriving in Cambodia, Bunly has experienced harder rain than he has ever seen in his life and often has to slosh through water up to his knees. He has already had to bribe officials, and he has been pick-pocketed.
“It’s not the best, but I’m free and alive,” Bunly said.
Bunly and his parents arrived in Stockton as refugees from Cambodia in 1983. He was 3 years old.
His problems started when he ran into trouble with the law in 2003 for drugs and 2005 for evading police. He served 16 months in prison and was released in 2007.
During the four years after he got out of prison, Bunly said he was a law-abiding citizen, worked full-time and took care of his children.
It took four years, but the United States and Cambodia eventually reached a deportation agreement.
In July, Bunly received a call from his wife while he was working at Round Table Pizza on Kettleman Lane, saying there were immigration officers at his house waiting to see him. He was taken into custody, spent a month and a half in the immigration area of the Sacramento County Jail, and then was deported.
“It breaks my heart being away from my kids. I was just getting my life back on track,” Bunly said.
‘I don’t even look Cambodian’
While on a cellphone in his one-room temporary home in Cambodia, Bunly answers the question of how he is doing with, “I’m breathing.”
Having few contacts and no memories of Cambodia has made daily life difficult.
“I ... have nothing out here. I came over with the clothes on my back,” Bunly said.
Bunly is living in a village outside of Phnom Penh, where he is constantly stared at by villagers.
His struggle started the second he got off the plane.
“The police were already asking for money. All of the police are corrupt over here,” Bunly said.
His family knew this would happen, so he had $100 sewn into his pants. His uncle, Song Im, had to take four of the top officials out to eat for a large meal to get Bunly through security without paying a monetary bribe.
“They are really poor over here, even if they are police they are still poor,” he said. “The meal was pretty extravagant. He didn’t have the money to do that.”
He feels lucky to have plumbing and electricity that flickers all day long at the temporary housing of his uncle’s nonprofit organization.
Im also immigrated in the early 1980s and was deported in 2002, Bunly said. Im’s nonprofit, Returnee Immigration Support Center, has helped 305 people transition from America to Cambodia.
Im, who works for less than $200 a month, said he helps immigrants get IDs and teaches them the basics of the language and cultural customs.
“They don’t speak Khmer and come to Cambodia, and that’s hard for them. I tell them, ‘You don’t understand, you have to listen more, you have to learn your language (again),’” Im said.
Because of budget cuts, the nonprofit has to move to a smaller house. Bunly will eventually have to move out of the housing, and will probably move into his uncle’s one-room hut.
His uncle is constantly watching over him because the country is not friendly to returnees from the United States.
“Take it step by step. Don’t rush into stuff because that’s when bad stuff happens,” Bunly said.
When Bunly first arrived, he had to get a haircut and his mustache and beard shaved off at a barber, because long hair is frowned upon in Cambodia. On his way to a haircut, a local kid waved him down, but he did not understand what the kid was saying.
After the haircut and shave, he realized he had been pick-pocketed when he reached in his pocket and his $10 was gone.
He has not yet been able to look for work because he needs to pay $200 for an ID. His uncle plans to take him to the countryside, where there is no running water or electricity, and offer a bribe for an ID.
“Everything over here is about money. If you don’t have money, you can’t do anything,” Bunly said.
Bunly eats what the nonprofit provides him or what his uncle’s wife cooks him, usually rice and vegetables.
“Rice — breakfast, lunch and dinner,” he said.
There are other deportees who are scattered throughout the country, but he has not yet met any of them because his uncle said many of them are on drugs or are alcoholics.
Bunly said he constantly feels like a target because everyone stares at him, especially because of his tattoos, which include his wife’s name, on his forearm.
“It’s very scary out here. I don’t want to go out, because I don’t fit in,” he said.
He rarely meets anyone who speaks English, and he can’t speak the little Cambodian he does know because it is so Americanized the locals think he is being disrespectful.
“I don’t even look Cambodian; they say I look like I’m a different race,” he said.
Bunly is working on reading and writing in Khmer, so he will be able to communicate with more people. He is ready to work and would like to teach English or eventually translate once he learns more Khmer.
“It would be something to keep me busy and keep my mind off thinking about my kids and my wife,” he said.
His homesickness flares the most at night when he is alone in his room.
“I can’t even describe it. Sometimes when I’m here by myself, I cry myself to sleep, but I’ll only sleep an hour before waking up again,” Bunly said.
Trying to get back to the U.S.
Bunly talks with his wife, Patricia, and his kids at least daily.
The 22-year-old is in the process of filing paperwork to get back into the United States.
The two met six years ago through mutual friends. She knew her husband had immigrated to Stockton from Cambodia.
When he arrived, the government gave him all the paperwork he needed, and told him to file for permanent citizenship after he turned 18 or got married.
As an adult, he never filed for permanent citizenship because he was always working good jobs with national companies like Big O Tires and Yoplait Yogurt, and didn’t feel like he needed to go through the process.
After getting into trouble and serving 16 months in prison, the United States started the deportation process, but ICE was not able to get travel documents to send him back to Cambodia.
He was released under supervision in 2007 and was required to check in every three months. In July, the travel documents cleared, so ICE took him into custody.
Bunly and Patricia, who is his common-law wife, hope his track record after getting out of prison will help with the appeal process.
He worked full-time at Round Table Pizza and paid his taxes.
He had two children with Patricia. He went to court to get full-time custody of his two oldest children, whom he had with another woman. He also paid child support for another child who lives with her mother in Stockton.
“I was working and spending time with my wife and family because I knew what I did in the past was wrong. I did a (180) from what I did,” Bunly said.
Bunly was told he is barred from the U.S. for at least 10 years from when the deportation process started in 2007.
“No, I don’t think it’s fair, because I did my time in prison already. I was obeying the laws and paying my taxes for years,” Bunly said.
However, there are extreme hardship waivers that a U.S. resident can file to bring their loved one back into the country sooner than 10 years, said Angelo Paparelli, a partner with Seyfarth Shaw Attorneys.
Paparelli, who is based out of Los Angeles and New York, handles immigration cases.
Patricia would need to first file an immigration visa petition with the United States Customs and Immigration Service, he said.
“They would decide if it was a marriage entered into to make a life together,” Paparelli said.
Then, she would need to file a waiver showing that his absence is an extreme hardship for her and her family.
Most people prove the hardship by getting expert testimony from a psychiatrist, sociologist or licensed social worker that “there is suffering beyond ordinary suffering,” Paparelli said.
Also, other evidence that someone was the sole breadwinner or the family will have to go on welfare without the other spouse is submissible.
The whole process takes about a year and a half, Paparelli said.
‘You are going to see daddy again, I’m going to bring him back’
Since Bunly has left, Patricia Bou said she has had a hard time making ends meet. She had to quit her job at Long John Silver’s to go on welfare, so she can take care of her four kids and work on her husband’s appeal.
“I feel pretty confident he will come back, but we just don’t know when,” she said.
The hardest part has been watching her four kids miss their dad.
She plans to eventually go visit or move to Cambodia with her two youngest children — 4-year-old son, Bara, and 3-year-old daughter, Dany. She plans to leave her 12-year-old son, Saahvin, and her 9-year-old daughter, Annastasia, in Stockton with family so they don’t miss out on their education.
Recently, the two oldest have said don’t want to stay here.
“Annastasia said, ‘You can’t leave me here. I already lost my dad. I don’t want to lose my mom,’” she said.
Dany is taking it the hardest, and cries all night, yelling, “Daddy, daddy, daddy!”
“The other three are going with the flow, and she is taking it much harder than anyone,” she said.
She has become more clingy, and Patricia said she hates watching her daughter be so depressed.
“I promise her all the time, ‘You are going to see daddy again, I’m going to bring him back,’” Patricia Bou said.
Bunly said he told her that it is her decision if she wants to come, but he is worried about her bringing the kids.
“There really is no education out here at all. If you do put your kids in school, you have to have money,” he said.
Despite the separation, the two have managed to keep a positive attitude. They both have faith they will be together — whether it is on Cambodian or U.S. soil.
“No matter how long it’s going to take, we are going to be here for each other, even if we are on the other side of the world. I look forward to our future and whatever has God planned,” Bunly said.
Contact reporter Maggie Creamer at firstname.lastname@example.org.