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A Very Long Way Back

Saravuth Inn is a Cambodian refugee who has been unable to leave the U.S. for decades. This is his story.

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A Very Long Way Back

Saravuth Inn brushes back his shaggy, dark hair to reveal the puffed-up fleshy remnants of a gunshot wound at the edge of his hairline. Several more hide beneath layers of baggy clothes. The many scars that stain his body remind Inn of all that he’s lost and all that he dreams of finding once more. Snatched from Cambodia in 1975 by American soldiers during the heart of the Khmer Rouge, he is one of the many lost children of his generation shipped to the U.S in the violent confusion.

Perched on a plastic crate on the outskirts of New York City’s Union Square Park, Inn inhales a long drag from a joint with one hand and thumbs a black Bishop chess piece with the other. His thinly framed body folds inwardly over the orderly chessboard resting temptingly between us. On most days, you can find the small Cambodian man in this exact spot discussing James Joyce, his favorite novelist, and life’s complexities with whoever is brave enough to challenge the chess master to a match. He coolly exhales the pale smoke and shifts his gaze from the board to me.

Inn rubs the bloated scar tissue on his head.

“Everybody was killed, including myself,” he starts. “But I didn’t die.” Just a child during the Cambodian genocide, Inn gazed helplessly as his father, once a celebrated performer, was massacred before him. He speaks of the various horrors he witnessed in Cambodia with a calm distance. The placidity of his tone suggests he has told such stories many times before, but, today, he is far more interested in the telling of another tale—his second life in America.

Saravuth Inn no longer recalls his hometown of Battumbong, Cambodia as the killing field that claimed his family, but as the dreamy paradise he knew so long ago. A smile stretches across his aging face as he remembers the verdant beauty of his former playground. He wants nothing more than to return and hush the aching nostalgia that has haunted him throughout his life in the United States.

He insists that he was never meant to be an American. While this may be true, he has tried very hard to embrace the life that has been thrust upon with the steadfast determination and competitive will that color his character. A Rutgers graduate with a literature major, Inn has devoted much of his life to mastering the English language. “This is not my language,” he reminds me. “But I can bloody-well checkmate you with my vocabulary.”

In 2008, upon completing a divorce with his now estranged wife, Saravuth Inn, who had found bliss in Canada for 18 years, journeyed back to the United States as he had lost his status there. But when he returned to his adopted home, Homeland Security could not recognize him. It was then that he discovered something that would disgust him for several years to come—he was never naturalized in this country. Instead, after being brought here by Americans, he had been labeled as a “displaced.” A displaced person is someone who has been forced to migrate his or her country (UNHCR). The once collegiate graduate soon found himself on the streets, as he could no longer legally work.

At first, Inn searched for justice in the hope of being granted full citizenship. His cause garnered publicity as he starred in the 2011 critically acclaimed documentary, Odysseus’ Gambit. At this time, he received much mail, including a sympathetic letter from senator of New York, Kirsten Gillibrand, but, several years later, she has yet to write back. Despite having garnered such attention by the media, not much has changed in his journey for justice despite his reformed goal.

“I just want peace. I just want fairness,” he pleads. Now, all Inn desires is for the government who “basically kidnapped” him to return him to his rightful home of Battumbong, Cambodia.

Today, one of the park’s several ritual players, Inn fuels such competitive drive into his practice of the game. An active USCF rated master in high school; Inn cites this blinding determination as the source of his proficiency at chess. Taught by his father at a young age, Inn abandoned the game during his difficult first years in the United States. However, he relocated his passion in his late teens when he was trained once more. In many ways, chess connects him to his happier years in Cambodia.

One of his chess-buddies hands him a turkey sandwich near the end of our interview and he smiles with earnest gratitude. He is clearly a beloved member of the Union Square chess community as his friends migrate towards us. A natural-born storyteller, people crowd around his makeshift chess table as if it is a campfire. He speaks, and we cannot help but listen. Although it may be difficult for him to speak of these injustices, he continues to do so with a present but tired optimism in his dream.

As I shake his hand and walk away, I turn around to see someone has already taken my seat.

Saravuth Inn starts his story again.

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