Tiny Toones School
I recently travelled to Cambodia to Volunteer at Tiny Toones School in Phnom Pehn.
Please visit www.tinytoones.org for more information.
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia - When Tuy Sobil was deported to Cambodia from the U.S., it was the first time he had ever stepped foot in the Southeast Asian country.
Born in a Thai refugee camp as his parents escaped the communist Khmer Rouge, and raised in Long Beach, California - home to the largest Cambodian community in the U.S. - Sobil joined a gang and later spent years in and out of prison for various crimes and violations.
Once in Cambodia, though, Sobil, who goes by the name KK, decided to turn his life around by starting a non-profit organization teaching kids living in poverty how to breakdance.
"I grew up being from a gang, but at the same time, I don't regret nothing," said the 37-year-old. "All I want is to help another person. To give another person a hand is, like, the best thing in life. We didn't have that hand."
Sobil recalls watching his parents and other Cambodians struggle to survive and adapt to their new home in America. Many earned a living in any way possible, whether through odd jobs or scouring the streets for pop cans to recycle for change.
"They don't have time to try to learn English. They have to find a way to make money to feed their kids. It was anything they could do," he said.
At age 8, Sobil learned to breakdance, but he later joined a gang as a way to protect himself and his family, he said. At 18, he was convicted of armed robbery, and soon found himself in and out of the prison system for parole and immigration violations.
By the time immigration officials deported him to Cambodia in 2004, Sobil said he couldn't wait to leave the U.S. Though thousands of refugees from Vietnam and Cambodia were allowed into the U.S. in the 1970s and 1980s under special status, a treaty was signed between the U.S. and Cambodia in 2002 allowing for the deportation of Cambodians from America. Nearly 400 men and women were deported from America to Cambodia in the first decade, according to the Returnee Integration Support Center, a nonprofit organization that helps deported Cambodian-Americans acclimate to their new life. In Fiscal Year 2014, 75 people were deported from the U.S. to Cambodia, according to federal statistics.
Once in Cambodia, Sobil headed to the rice fields, where he planned to make his life as a farmer. He only lasted a few weeks, he said, and returned to Phnom Penh, where he decided to use hip hop to make a connection with local children.
"Hip hop is an art form that is an education, too," said Sobil. For example, kids who want to rap learn how to read and write and how to count the beat.
His informal lessons eventually turned into an NGO called Tiny Toones that now attracts hundreds of children and youths every day. They take classes in Hip Hop, English, Khmer, Computing, Maths and History.
If you would like to donate money to Tiny Toones:
Please enjoy personal photos from my visit