A Second Chance in Cambodia

On the top floor of a city center shopping mall, youngsters in baggy jeans breakdance to loud hip-hop music while an energetic emcee raps over the top.

It could be a scene from any North American or European city, but this is Cambodia's capital Phnom Penh. And the dancers on stage are among the most underprivileged children and youths in the poverty-stricken country, which is still scarred by years of war and oppression. Their teachers are discards from American society, which kicked them out because of the accident of their birth.

They are members of the Tiny Toones breakdancing club, which aims to give children from Phnom Penh's poorest slum communities a constructive way to channel their energies and build confidence.

Some are orphans, many are HIV-positive, and others are former drug users – children who are all too often discarded and left on the margins of society. Now, says Tiny Toones' Khmer-American founder, Tuy Sopil, they are "the most popular dancers in Cambodia" and an inspiration to others.

With his tattoo-covered arms, baggy jeans and baseball cap, 29-year-old Tuy – also known as KK looks every inch the California gang member he once was. But since he was deported from the US to Cambodia, a country he hardly knew, he has devoted himself to helping his young charges avoid the life of gangs, drugs and crime that he fell into.

Tuy was just a baby when his family fled Cambodia and the murderous misrule of the ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge regime. They settled in Arizona, and then Long Beach, California – home to a thriving community of Cambodian refugees. Although he became an accomplished breakdancer, Tuy got involved with gangs and was taking crack cocaine in his early teens.

At around 18 he was sent to jail for the first time, for robbery. He received two more sentences for the same crime, and says he spent a total of about nine-and-a-half years in jail or the custody of the US Immigration and Naturalization Service. Then, in 2002, he got trouble of another kind that he never expected. The Bush administration pushed the Cambodia government into signing a repatriation agreement that made possible the deportation of about 1,600 Cambodian Americans, most of whom had dim memories if any at all of Cambodia. Tuy was one of them. He left his family – including a young son – behind. There are around 140 Khmer-American deportees like him in Cambodia. Hundreds more are waiting to be sent back when they finish their sentences.

On his return to Phnom Penh, Tuy turned his life around. "When I got here I started all over again, and now everyone loves me," he said. "It feels like I fit into the community. In the States, it didn't feel like that."

Tuy also works for an NGO set up by a group of deportees that works with drug users. But he seems most enthusiastic when talking about Tiny Toones, which he started around two years ago with just nine members. Now it has many times that number, aged from three to 24, and they practice at five different locations in Phnom Penh. The dancers get paid to perform at shows and promotional events, so they can make a little money for their parents through their hobby.

"I want to help them because I used to be a kid on drugs," he said. "I spent most of my life in gangs, trying to be cool. These kids need a role model and they don't have that, so I'm trying to be that."

Tuy teaches breakdancing and hires three other teachers to give lessons in Khmer, English and HIV-Aids prevention. He regularly checks the youngsters' school reports and suspends them from dancing if they get low grades.

Similarly, membership in Tiny Toones is used as a carrot to persuade youngsters to give up substance abuse such as sniffing glue or taking yama, which means “crazy medicine,” and is the local name for highly-addictive crystal methamphetamine.

"If they don't quit drugs, they can't join us," Tuy said. "If they are on drugs, I don't want them. I want them to quit before they join."

Cambodia has a high prevalence of HIV/Aids, and a lot of the dancers are HIV-positive. "I want them to know that it's not the end of the world," said Tuy.

He talks affectionately about one of his dancers, a 10-year-old boy who is HIV-positive: "He's the best breakdancing guy in my crew. He's very smart in English and Khmer. He's very talented."

Tuy clearly inspires respect among the young dancers, and this is reciprocated. He has even "adopted" five children and taken them into his home. He is proud of the youngsters, but says but the group needs more financial help. His ambition is to create a park in Phnom Penh, "where kids can be free to play".

Recently, 20 dancers announced that they wanted to form a gang. Tuy told them they must leave the group if they did. They chose to stay. He said: "They just want to be cool, and I say 'You guys are cool. You are popular in Cambodia. Everybody wants to be like you guys, and you want to be gang members? That's not cool'."