Chantha Kong was born in 1982 in a refugee camp in Thailand after his family fled the Khmer Rouge genocide. He and his parents entered the United States as refugees when Chantha was just an infant. He has six siblings, and most of his family are now U.S. citizens. Growing up in southeast Fresno, Chantha was surrounded by violence and poverty. When he was just five years old, he recalls having a gun pointed at him for the first time.
At age nineteen, Chantha was charged with vehicular burglary when the friends who were giving him a ride home decided to break into a car to steal CDs. Chantha was advised to plead no contest and released on his own recognizance. Shaken by the experience, Chantha began turning his life around. He started attending church and in 2003, Chantha got a job through Hope Now for Youth, a faith-based nonprofit in Fresno. As a mentor, Chantha helped young people leave gangs, drawing on his own past to provide life-altering advice. Chantha also started taking college courses part-time. Despite these positive changes to his life, Chantha was still impacted by the violence in his community. He lost many friends, a brother, and a cousin to gun violence, and he couldn’t help but think about how he was attending more funerals than birthdays, as well as losing more friends to prison.
In 2006, Chantha attended a party with one of his brothers. About a year before, his brother had been shot five times, leaving one of his arms paralyzed. For protection, Chantha’s brother now carried a gun. During the party, his brother went out to get more food and left the gun with Chantha for safe keeping. Police raided the party and when they asked Chantha if he had anything on him, he admitted that he had a gun. Chantha did not want to get his brother in trouble, so he did not explain that the gun was not his. Chantha pled no contest to possession of firearm by a felon, and was sentenced to a year in jail.
Instead of going home to his family after finishing his sentence, Chantha was arrested by ICE and detained in Arizona. After an immigration judge ordered his deportation, Chantha remained in ICE custody for months because Cambodia had not agreed to accept him. In January 2008, he filed a habeas corpus petition and was released on an order of supervision. Upon his release, Chantha committed himself to his family and his faith. Chantha continued studying towards an associate’s degree in social work, while working hard as a business administrator for a job placement agency. In his spare time, he continued to volunteer with his church community and with Hope Now for Youth.
Unfortunately, in April 2010, Chantha was detained at an unscheduled ICE check-in. He had been told that some documents needed to be updated, but this was just a ruse so that ICE could arrest him for deportation. Four days after Chantha was detained, his younger sister committed suicide. Although he was allowed to attend her funeral, ICE only allowed him to be there for fifteen minutes and they insisted he wear shackles in front of his family and community. A week before Chantha’s deportation, his youngest cousin committed suicide as well.
After his traumatic deportation, Chantha immediately had to figure out how to survive in Cambodia. Thankfully, his church decided to continue employing him, and he was tasked with starting a branch in Phnom
Penh. Chantha worked as the country director of Hope Now for Youth in Cambodia from 2011-2019 where he provided housing, employment, and other support services for other Cambodians deported from the U.S. He currently teaches elementary school English and runs Math Club at a private school. Chantha also mentors children at the local YMCA, and continues to support deportees in adjusting to life in Cambodia. Although he has found his calling in counseling and working with children, Chantha still misses his family in the United States, and he hopes to return home to them soon.