He’s slighter and more approachable than I imagined after watching his videos on YouTube. He moves gracefully, has kind, big brown eyes, and a lovely smile.
We go inside, find a seat and begin talking about his creativity and what it means for him.
FAMILY OF REFUGEES AND EXILES
Born in 1980, Kosal is the youngest of 7. His 6 siblings (3 girls and 3 boys) are the children of his mother’s first husband, who was executed by the Khmer Rouge regime in front of her. She met Kosal’s father in a refugee camp whilst trying to flee Cambodia, which is where Kosal was born. His father subsequently escaped from the camp and the story goes that he returned to take Kosal and care for him, but Kosal’s protective sisters hid the baby boy, not wishing to be separated from their new brother; and that was the last time father and son had any contact.
The family of eight was exiled to the USA in 1981, but instead of a better life, there was more struggle and disparity. The young Kosal grew up mixing with a bad crowd, and went on to develop gang ties. His mother, fearful of the direction her youngest was taking, sent him away to a boys home in the hope Kosal would learn discipline and find the wherewithal to navigate his teen years in a way more conducive to a healthy and happy life ‘I held a lot of resentment for that’ he says about that decision.
PATH TO PRISON
The care home proved to be abusive, and was eventually shut down. Kosal was returned to his mother’s care only to be told he would again be sent away. Frightened, he ran away, found his old gang friends, and his fate for the next decade and more, was sealed.
‘I had no guidance’.
At 16 he was arrested for attempted murder, tried that same year as an adult, and given a hefty 16-year prison sentence in a state penitentiary with all the violence it promised.
A few month’s into his sentence, Khiev began to be inspired by the rapper Tupac – he would listen to friendly Guard Efferson’s music choices when he came to work the night shift- and started to make up poems in his head. Mr Efferson smuggled a pen and paper to Kosal and he started writing down rhymes, but it was not until he was placed in solitary confinement for a year and a half that the 20 year old Kosal would start to write in earnest, and use his creativity as a life-saving formula. Terrified that he was going mad after talking to himself one morning, his only company being a fragmented reflection of his face in a broken cell mirror, and the two books he would be given weekly by the warders; Khiev wrote to keep himself sane and to find a direction through his time in solitary.
On his release from solitary, Kosal set up a weekly group called the ‘Prison Peace Project’ where prisoners could come, leave their hierarchical positions established by gang and colour, outside the room; and be inspired by the words and the doors to free thinking that they opened. When Kosal set that group up only two or three prisoners would attend. By the end of his time there, the group was made up of between thirty and forty men.
EXILED TO CAMBODIA
He was sent in 2010 to an ICE penitentiary, (immigration custody enforcement), and in 2011, eventually exiled to Cambodia with no chance to say a proper hello or goodbye to his family – “They were my anchor during my time in prison and I will never be able to visit them in America”.
Cambodia was a country to which he had never before been. He arrived there in 2011 and, after being largely homeless, or relying on kind, new-found-friends for a bed on a floor, it was only three months ago that Kosal found an apartment that he could lease for a year. “I’ve been moving so much, feeling like a nomad for so long, it’s nice to just stay in one place, and Cambodia’s definitely my home”.
FREEDOM THROUGH POETRY
He was selected by Studio Revolt in Phnom Penh the same year he was exiled to be their first artist in residence, and that is how he is where he is today.
Presently, Kosal writes anything from two poems a week, to five a day, feeling most comfortable creating when he is surrounded by people. “I retreat into a little bubble and the words ‘just come’, but I find it a bit more tricky when I am alone”. From what he says about feeling comforted by the hubbub of society, it’s easy to get an idea just how hard it must be for any rehabilitated prisoner to adjust to life outside prison walls.
I leave feeling moved, impressed and inspired by this damaged soul, who will finally be reunited with the father he lost 32 years ago in a matter of days, meeting three younger half-sisters and their families around the same time. He is healing and helping, quietly fighting a system, and encouraging others to live better lives. I wish him all the luck in the world and leave thinking that the priestess’s prophecy has come true.