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Where EAST meets the Northwest


Many Uch and his family spent over two years in refugee camps in Thailand before being accepted as refugees into the U.S. (Photo/Many Chout Uch/ITVS)

Loeun Lun stands in front of his new home in Siem Reap, Cambodia. (Photo/Howard Shack/ITVS)

From The Asian Reporter, V17, #17 (April 24, 2007), page 11 & 16.

More loss after so much sorrow

Sentenced Home

Produced and directed by

Nicole Newnham and David Grabias

Presented by the Center for Asian American Media for "Independent Lens"

By Ronault L.S. Catalani

Sentenced Home is the latest sad chapter in Cambodia’s modern history. So bad. But it hasn’t always been so. Not for these gentle people, not for this once-proud nation.

In another time, Cambodia was grand. Her legendary Angkor philosopher-kings reversed rivers and raised irrigated golden rice twice a year. They raised astonishing temple-palaces almost all the way to heaven. But then bad things started happening. Things got so bad, so rapidly, that in the awful end (1975-79) Cambodia began to devour herself. It was, of course, in the vacuum of America’s startling defeat and sudden retreat from Southeast Asia.

Dark Years followed. Acclaimed filmmakers David Grabias and Nicole Newnham’s fine-focused documentary Sentenced Home picks up the tale in Seattle, in post-9/11 America.

Children of Cambodia’s nightmare, the ones blessed enough not to lie in Khmer Rouge mass graves — the ones careful enough to weave an escape through frontier province minefields, lucky enough to get housed in Thai border camps and picked for resettlement in the U.S. — are now young American men. The three guys center stage in Sentenced Home have not done well. Their families have not integrated into happy American dreaming.

Grabias and Newnham’s work seems an effort not to let us forget. Our culture often moves so impulsively, trying to resolve complex conflicts quickly, forcefully. The directors, in association with the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM) and the Emmy Award-winning PBS series "Independent Lens," are slowing us down. Bringing us back.

Sentenced Home is a long and unflinching look at the sobering and continuing human cost of a rushed and uninformed intervention into a faraway part of our aching planet. And what happens when casualties of our failed foreign policy — traumatized elders and parents and babies, folk from a suddenly destroyed traditional agrarian society — are rapidly resettled into low-rent/high-neglect American communities. Our ghettos.

Unflinching documentary

Sentenced Home won’t let you look away from the quiet misery of Khmer country folk dropped into the ugly eastside of urban Seattle. Many Uch’s ma may’ve been an able mother in any Asian rice village from the chilly Korean peninsula to the sweltering timur end of the Indonesian archipelago, but she had no way of knowing how to parent her frightened little boy, she had no way of understanding him when he turned into an angry and stoned teen. Of course he was a bad Asian son, and just as surely he became an American criminal.

What’s worse, no one in this anxious mother’s woefully unprepared ethnic enclave had a clue what draconian consequences her boy’s behavior would have if she didn’t learn to read and write, then didn’t learn American civics, then didn’t go downtown to apply, then take, then pass the U.S. citizenship test. How would they? How could she?

"I go to school," says a proudly hung paper in her child-like scrawl.

"I learn at school




Irony or America’s tank on empty.

Today, 30 years after Cambodia’s Killing Fields, 1,500 young men, all of them convicted of felonies, some little some big, all of them legally defined as "aggravated" under increasingly xenophobic U.S. immigration law, are getting sent back. Sentenced home.

Loeun Lun fired a handgun as he ran from gang guys in a suburban mall parking lot; no one was hit, but he was charged with felony assault and he pled guilty. The court sent him to prison for 11 months. He did the time for his crime. Eight years later, he was suddenly jailed, taken away from his old mother, taken from his young wife and their baby girls, and from his job of providing for them. His wife Saroum quickly sells their car, gives up their apartment, and moves in with Loeun’s elder sister. Their little girls get to see their father in prison orange, during visiting hours. U.S. Immigration officers put him back behind bars until such time as the new Republic of Kampuchea would take him back. Loeun was not a U.S. citizen, so he gets deported. His pretty daughters have to do without his fathering, without his salary. In their neglected neighborhood. How could we?

Three guys, from sad to bad

Sentenced Home is about three such young Seattle guys: Loeun the disappeared dad, the thug Kim Ho Ma (a.k.a. K-9), and gentle Many. Many’s Little League Stor-More Jets are 0-8 for the season but they’re a world better off than Many’s battered generation, because of Many.

The camera follows them in polished handcuffs, in tearful partings, and in return to chaotic Phnom Penh and dirt-poor villages.

This is a difficult documentary. It is a story redeemed by the sincerity of these simple rice people, still unwashed, still hopelessly unsophisticated, in the shadow of towering Seattle. It is redeemed by the dogged persistence of their pubic defender. It is redeemed by the quiet whirr and sober witness of Ms. Newnham’s camera.

Sentenced Home the film will be broadcast locally by Oregon Public Broadcasting within weeks of Portland’s national forum on the U.N.-sponsored Crimes Against Humanity Tribunal. The symposium features international experts, Cambodian and American professors, authors, and activists who will discuss the Khmer Rouge genocide and the generations of sorrow that followed. Thirty years or 5,000 miles notwithstanding.

Opening events for the Khmer Rouge Tribunal Forum will be held at 6:00pm on Friday, April 27 at the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization (IRCO), located at 10301 N.E. Glisan Street in Portland. On Saturday, panels of speakers will share their stories from 10:00am to 6:00pm at Portland State University’s Smith Memorial Student Union Ballroom. All programs are free and open to the public.

Sichan Siv, a Khmer Rouge survivor, former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., and author of Golden Bones, will serve as keynote speaker. Panelists include: Alex Hinton, Ph.D., author of Why Did They Kill? Cambodia in the Shadow of Genocide; Beth Van Schaack, J.D., legal advisor to the Documentation Center of Cambodia; Craig Etcheson, Ph.D., investigator at the Office of the Co-Prosecutors, Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia; Daran Kravanh, survivor of the Khmer Rouge, musician, and author of Music Through the Dark; Leakhena Nou, Ph.D., researcher of mental health and well-being among Khmer refugees; Loung Ung, author of First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers; and Rath Ben, MSW, a program manager at the Intercultural Psychiatric Program at Oregon Health & Science University.

For more information, contact Kilong Ung at (503) 267-4631, e-mail <>, or visit <>. To read more about Ung’s journey, visit <>.

Sentenced Home will air on Oregon Public Broadcasting on Tuesday, May 15 at 11:00pm. To learn more, visit <>.