Vibol Sok, of Lowell, stands in front of the American flag back when he was just 7-years-old and living in Lowell as a legal refugee whose family fled the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. Sok now faces deportation due to a two decade old felony conviction, even though he has never set foot in Cambodia as an adult, and has no memories of the country.
Vibol Sok was just 5-years-old when he was brought to America in 1981 by his mother and several other family members, fleeing from genocide and the Khmer Rouge, which had separated his father from the family.
He never learned the Khmer language well, as he grew up riding bikes and playing with Transformers and G.I. Joes in The Acre neighborhood.
“He’s the most American person in our family,” said a cousin, Sophea Prum, who has long thought of Sok as a brother. “He doesn’t speak (Khmer). He collects Hot Wheels and drives a Cadillac.”
Sok has never set foot in Cambodia as an adult and has no memories of the country. But thanks to a felony aggravated assault conviction from over 20 years ago, he may be deported and sent to the land he hasn’t seen in 39 years. He is one of at least five Lowellians to be detained, and one of many across the country.
“I only know here. This is it. My earliest memories are here,” Sok said. “I’m scared as hell. I don’t want to be over there. I know nothing about that place.”
While legal refugees from Cambodia have been being deported for past criminal convictions since 2002, when Cambodia agreed to begin repatriating refugees who were convicted of felonies, such deportations have risen sharply under President Donald Trump.
Trump imposed visa sanctions on Cambodia and some other nations in order to compel them to speed up the repatriation process. That led to a roughly 280 percent increase in removals between Fiscal 2017 and Fiscal 2018, according to advocacy groups.
Lowell Sun/Robert Mills
Vibol Sok, 44, of Lowell, gets help from his nephew KJ Smith as he blows out the candles on a cake at a surprise birthday party last week. At right is Savy Huy, Sok’s youngest sister. SUN/Robert Mills
Sok’s father never escaped Cambodia, and died there in 2003. Sok’s mother, Phonn Yeth, had to raise her children in Lowell, where she wasn’t fluent in the language yet, and had to work two jobs to support her family.
“The hours my mother was required to work to provide for us meant we spent much of our time apart from her,” Sok’s sister, Sophan Smith, wrote in a story she has shared widely while seeking community support for her brother and other refugees. “With no other parent in the house and no father to provide guidance and support, my brother made poor choices.”
While Sok has always been in the U.S. legally, a 21-year-old felony conviction for aggravated assault that led to Sok serving prison time makes him eligible to be deported despite his legal resident status. No one was injured in the assault.
Sok was detained on Oct. 3, when he went to a typically-routine check-in with Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Burlington. A legal permanent resident, he has been going to such check-ins for years. As Smith waited for him in the lobby without any warning, Sok was handcuffed. He was set to be flown to Texas, and then back to Cambodia.
An ICE spokesman has said the agency does not target anyone for removal due to ethnicity.
“ICE focuses its resources on the arrest and removal of unlawfully present aliens who have received criminal convictions; have pending criminal charges; or are determined to be a national security or public safety threat,” Marcos D. Charles, acting director of ICE’s Boston field office recently said.
Sok’s daughter, Seeda Sam-Sok, was at work when she got the news that her dad was detained.
“I didn’t know what to do,” she said. “I was at work with all these feelings. I felt like I couldn’t do anything.”
Vibol Sok, his longtime girlfriend Maria Collins, and his daughter Seeda Sam-Sok in photo booth pictures taken at a surprise 44th birthday party for Sok, who faces deportation from the country where he has lived since he was 5-years-old. SUN/Robert Mills
Smith wasn’t sure what she could do either, but she began asking friends and coworkers and was connected to immigration attorney Susan Church. Church filed an emergency petition to get a stay on Sok’s transport and removal from the country. Following a hearing in Boston before a federal judge, a stay was issued to prevent Sok from being flown to Texas.
He was freed from detention after the stay was issued, and last week he was caught off guard by a surprise 44th birthday party in Lowell, which doubled as a chance to see friends at a scary time and as a chance to tell Sok’s story.
In the years since the days when Sok ran afoul of the law, he has grown into a father figure for much of his extended family, and into a father who has taught his 22-year-old daughter — as well as others — how to be strong and to do the right thing, according to family and friends.
“The family would be devastated (if he was deported),” said Prum. “He’s like the man of the house for the family.”
Vibol Sok, 44, of Lowell, kisses the forehead of his cousin, Sophea Prum, at a surprise birthday party Friday. Sok is facing deportation despite living here as a permanent legal resident since he was 5-years-old. SUN/Robert Mills
Prum said Sok taught her to be independent, and to be a strong mother like the mothers who brought them here and raised them.
Charlie Lach, of Lowell, a friend of Sok’s family since childhood, said Sok made mistakes in the past, but learned from them, and uses those lessons to help guide younger generations in Lowell.
“He doesn’t want them to make the same mistakes,” Lach said. “He’s become a role model.”
Sok has worked for Market Basket for 21 years now, currently working in the Chelmsford store. He took part in the protests held by employees when Artie T. DeMoulas was briefly ousted from the company in 2014.
Sam-Sok said her father is the “goofiest man,” and yet took her under his wing and taught her about the world.
“He means everything to me,” she said.
The family is especially concerned about Sam-Sok losing her father, since it was not having a father that helped lead Vibol Sok down the wrong path when he was a younger man.
Vibol Sok, center at rear, sits in on Lowell’s South Common shortly after arriving in America as a legal refugee from Cambodia in 1981. At left, Sok’s sister Sophan Smith holds her sister, Savy Huy. The baby at center is a cousin, Sophea Prum, and at right is a family friend.
While the federal judge’s stay removes the some of the threat of deporation that Sok faces, his previous convictions mean he could be detained again and slated for deportation at any time. The family is now working with Church to get Sok’s previous convictions vacated, so he can live without constant fear of being sent to a country he doesn’t know.
“We’ve won a really big battle, but we haven’t won the war,” Smith said.
Smith is working with the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association, Greater Boston Legal Services, and other organizations to fight for her brother and other legal refugees who face deportation due to years old convictions. She can be reached at email@example.com.