When Saroeum Phoung walks into the entrance of the Youth Services Center in King County on a windy fall day in October, there’s already a crowd gathering in the lobby for a historic sentencing hearing. It’s the first time a teen, who faced a minimum 2-year sentence in jail, has instead worked through a restorative justice process.
Saroeum is the man responsible for the restoration part of the process, convening youth, families, and faith-based communities to lead participants through what is called, a “Peacemaking Circle.”
“I know a peacemaking circle sounds all ‘Kum ba yah’ and all,” Saroeum says. “It’s not exactly sexy terminology, but once people participate in the sessions, they really come to appreciate this process.”
The process requires building relationships through transparent sharing of stories; working to change oneself instead of others, and other principles such as learning how to transform your pain into positive action.
If there’s anyone who knows about transforming pain, it’s Saroeum.
Saroeum was born in Cambodia in 1972. He was just 3 years old when the Khmer Rouge seized the country’s capital, Phnom Penh, and brutally executed hundreds of thousands of Cambodia’s educated elite. Those who survived were forced out of the cities and into rural areas, scrounging to find food for their families.
When Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1979, Saroeum’s family eventually managed to cross the land-mined Thai border where they eked out an existence for another five years in refugee camps before immigrating to the United States in 1984. America was the anticipated land of peace and freedom, the “goodest of glories,” 12-year-old Saroeum thought at the time.
But dreams of how great things would be in America faded into the reality of living in the United States in the post-Vietnam years. There was a new language to learn and a foreign culture to assimilate to amid intense racial discrimination.
Under the stress, Saroeum’s father and mother divorced, and Saroeum ended up living with his older brothers, eventually forming an Asian street gang to replace the family structure he had lost.
Saroeum was a natural leader and a tough teenager who settled scores with his fists, an ax, or knives. He might still be part of street gang or dead if it wasn’t for the ongoing efforts of Roca, a nonprofit outreach group for youth in the Boston area. Molly Baldwin, the excutive director of Roca, took years to build a rapport with Saroeum, showing up at the court where Saroeum played basketball or finding him on the streets and engaging in conversations with him. Eventually, she won his respect and trust to the point that Molly was able to recruit him to work for Roca.
In 1999, Saroeum attended a restorative justice conference where he learned the principles of trust and relationship building from leaders of the First Nation Tagish Tlingit in the Yukon Territory. “I grew up on the streets. I grew up disliking police and law enforcement,” Saroeum says. “Even though I was part of the senior staff at Roca, when I went to meet with judges and police, they were still on the other side for me at first. We knew how to work against each other. We knew how to work around each other. We didn’t know how to work well with each other. There was a learning process for all of us to begin to heal and trust each other.”
Saroeum says the restorative justice process taught him how to let go of ego and how to apologize to someone—a difficult thing to do for grownups especially. It also taught him to listen to others which was an integral part of the process with the Seattle teen Saroeum worked with in the Peacemaking Circle.
It was an intense year-long process of owning a mistake, talking about what led to the situation and arrest, offering public apologies and reparations. “The first time we sat down together, he told me ‘I don’t like sharing things with strangers, and this is something I feel ashamed of.’ What people don’t realize is that this restorative justice work is harder than going to jail!”
After a year of hard work, those in the restorative justice process came together with more than 150 members of the community for the teen’s sentencing hearing. Instead of 2 years in jail, the young man was sentenced to a year of probation with on-going involvement with the Peacemaking Circle and community service.
“Pain that is not transformed is transferred,” a representative of the Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle and member of the Peacemaking Coordinating Team said to the sentencing group, quoting Catholic priest and writer Richard Rohr.
It’s Saroeum’s mission to transform pain, a work he’s done in his own life and what he is currently doing in the lives of others.
Source: King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office – Facebook post – November 7, 2016