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Deported to Cambodia, Former Gang Member Gets A Second Chance

One of the children KK taught to breakdance at Tiny Toones shows off his moves.
One of the children Sobil taught to breakdance at Tiny Toones shows off his moves. Courtesy Tiny Toones

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's gang and criminal activity growing up in California got him deported back to Cambodia - a country he never even knew. He decided to turn his life around.Kristi Eaton for NBC News

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.

"Hip hop is an art form that is an education, too"

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.

Tiny Toones' students can't just study hip hop and breakdancing. Sobil ensures the kids study English, Khmer, math, and history.Courtesy Tiny Toones

His informal lessons eventually turned into an NGO called Tiny Toones that now attracts hundreds of children and youth every day. They take classes in hip hop, English and Khmer, computers, and math and history.

Sorn "Slick" Makara can't imagine what his life would be like today without Tiny Toones and Sobil. Makara was just 14 when he started doing drugs. He left his family's home and soon started living with various friends, sleeping on their couches and turning to them for food.

At 15, he saw a breakdancing performance on TV and knew he wanted to take part. He met Sobil and asked to get involved, but Sobil had one condition: he had to get off the drugs.

"It changed my life"

Moving beyond his addiction - and the people who enabled it - meant Makara had no place to call home, so for two years he slept at Tiny Toones as he worked to become clean.

Now 23, he is drug-free and working as a teacher for young children at the center.

"It changed my life," Makara said.

When Sobil goes out to nightclubs now, he often sees many of the young adults he took in years ago as young children performing on stage as rappers, dancers and DJs. They call out his name as a sign of appreciation and respect. They remember that Sobil gave them a shot when no one else would.

Sobil says he hopes to eventually pass on the organization to his students when they get older. For now, he wants them remember just one thing.

"It doesn't matter how famous you become," he said, "just don't forget where you came from."

Sobil reaches hundreds of kids through his Tiny Toones program every day, and says he eventually hopes to turn over the organization to the same children who are growing up in it.Courtesy Tiny Toones