Youth in Action: Sophya Chum, Immigrant Rights Activist
By Jamilah King, TheNation.com, WireTap
|Thinking about Becoming an Immigrant Rights Organizer?|
Center for Community Change: offers long-term support and training for grassroots activists and nonprofit professionals nationally.
Movement Activist Apprenticeship Program: trains young organizers of color in direct action campaigns across the country, and offers paid summer internships to young activists in organizations across the country.
Labor/Community Strategy Center: based in Los Angeles, combines classes on political and organizing theory with paid internships on direct action campaigns.
Midwest Academy: teaches strategic and rigorous methods in direct action organizing. They offer five-day training sessions in Chicago, California and Washington, DC. Center for Progressive Leadership: helps college students and other young leaders get paid internships or fellowships at progressive organizations across the country.
School of Unity and Liberation (SOUL): Based in Oakland, Calif, SOUL is an intensive summer organizing training program.
Future5000.com: search this comprehensive directory of youth-led organizations to connect with other immigrant rights organizers in your city.
Southeast Asian community organizations, such as KGA, began to mobilize against the repatriation agreement. They argued that deportation was an unfair punishment, especially against young people. Indeed, most of those facing deportation were known as members of the "1.5 generation," people born in Cambodia and raised in the US. A survey by Washington, DC-based Southeast Asia Resource Center (SEARAC) found that most people being deported had initially come to the US at an average age of nine, and spent over twenty years living with their families in the United States.
Sophya's work took on a decidedly more personal tone when her older sister faced deportation. Like many of the young people being sent back to Cambodia, Sophya's sister (who preferred not to use her name for this story) came to the US with her parents from a refugee camp after fleeing the Vietnam War and deadly Khmer Rouge regime. In total, the Khmer Rouge claimed nearly two million lives and refugees still held the trauma of forced work camps, torture and seeing loved ones brutally murdered.
Like many people in the 1.5 generation, Sophya's sister was the oldest of her five siblings, and the only one born in Cambodia. She came with her family to the US when she was five, didn't know any English, and settled with her parents in Long Beach, which has the largest Cambodian population in the US, according to 2000 Census data. Unlike her younger siblings who were born in the US and have the privilege of American citizenship, 1.5 generationers' green card status makes any encounters with the the law potentially disastrous.
During KGA's writing workshops, where participants are encouraged to write from another person's perspective, Sophya began writing about her sister. After she shared her story, the organization took up her case as a primary cause. She was encouraged to share her painful family story with others to show that the issue was a larger community problem, not one that needed to be faced alone by individuals. "I was really proud...talking about my family.... And just telling [the community] that this is normal and connecting it with other people," she says.
The organization held protests and rallies against the rising numbers of deportations. Ultimately, they were able to intervene in her sister's deportation (although her case is still pending), but there are still hundreds of young Cambodians who face forcible deportation on questionable charges at any time. The experience left a lasting impression on Sophya. "I always preach that you can't just keep things to yourself," she says. "Your story is not just your story. It could be someone else's story."
Moreover, Sophya's work highlights the importance of checking your own backyard for potential avenues for civic engagement. Most recently, she helped train a group of young women to protest in opposition of California's Proposition 4, a recently defeated ballot initiative that would have required parental consent for abortions by underage women.
For people interested in advocating for the rights of immigrants and refugees, Sophya suggests starting simple. "Find a community [you're] interested in learning about and creating change in," she says. "And begin to volunteer."
Sophya hopes to build the leadership skill of the young women around her, so they can one day take on her leadership role. "I feel like I was given this opportunity to be part of this organization, and I want to be able to expand KGA in that way where it is still a resource and young women and men can get access to it through the work that we do."
Jamilah King is the associate editor of WireTap.