Sokthea ate breakfast with me. I had arrived at the immigration conference early, but then I arrive at everything early. Sokthea got there early too. We picked up the programs for the session, and then we found ourselves a table in the meeting room. We were alone there for a while. We ate and talked.
Sokthea Phay is a young man; tall, thin, and passionate. He glows with enthusiasm. He works for as the community operations director at the YMCA in Long Beach, California. He’s a snappy dresser. During the conference, he almost always wore a suit and tie. His appearance was in stark contrast to my own. If I can’t go somewhere in jeans and a sweatshirt, I don’t go.
Sokthea’s family is originally from Cambodia. He came to America with his one-year-old son, and his very pregnant wife in 2013. Jokthea came to this country with no assets. He did have a sponsor, but that was all. Since his arrival, Jokthea has learned English, and found a good position that allows him to help new immigrants at the YMCA (he originally worked with the “Y” when he lived in Cambodia). He has a thick accent, but otherwise his English is as good as mine, if not better.
Sokthea likes to talk, but he also takes time to listen. He carefully heard my story, and he seemed genuinely interested in me as a person. It is rare for someone, especially a stranger, to do that. But he did. In the time it took us to eat breakfast, we had become friends. I found that to be remarkable.
Later in the day, there was a panel discussion about how to help people who face detention and deportation. In particular, the conversation revolved around finding lawyers for these immigrants, and finding the money to pay for lawyers. Once the panelists were done speaking, there a brief period of time for asking questions.
Jokthea eagerly stood up to ask a question. He was a bit closer to the panel than I was, so I was looking at his back while he talked to the panelists. I couldn’t see his facial expression as he spoke.
Jokthea came to his question in a roundabout sort of way. He said,
“We have been talking about helping the detainees. That is good, but there are other people also involved. The families. When a person is detained or deported, the children have to no parent. Then the grandparent must be the parent and raise the children. Sometimes, the grandparents come from Cambodia after the genocide. They have PTSD, or maybe dementia. They cannot work. Sometimes, they get evicted, because they cannot pay rent. Then who cares for the children?”
His voice cracked, and I could see an involuntary shudder in Jokthea’s back and shoulders.
“At the “Y” we try to buy Christmas gifts for these children with no parents. They have nobody.”
Jokthea abruptly stopped speaking. His breathing became labored. I could see him remove his glasses and wipe his eyes.
He breathed deeply and spoke again, “What do we do for the families?”
Jokthea collapsed into the chair next to me, still facing away. I squeezed his shoulder gently. He turned and offered me his hand. Then he looked at the panelists again in silence.
The program ended a few minutes later. He turned to look at me. There was pain in his face. Something cut him to his very core.
I laid my hand on his chest, on the left side. I told him,
“You have a good heart.”
He nodded with wet, glistening eyes.
I said, “You know…you said more in your silence than you did with your words.”
He nodded again.
I generally do no provide links to other media. However, Sokthea has a video that rocks.