From Child Gangster, to Teen Prisoner, to Adult Poet By Emily Goovaerts

The excitement was building in UWCSEA easts crowded conference room of the grade 9’s waiting for Kosal Kiev to begin, to learn his life story that we had heard before and were ready for more. He spoke at UWC for an annual event that he has visited and participated in multiple times.

The moment he began to speak his energy filled the room, with his excitement. Beginning with a performance of his poem. His life story began to inspire all the grade 9’s in front of him in complete shock of his truth. The change he has brought to this world and the impact he has attempted to make brings me and the students of this school to a whole realisation of another way. He made me realize that you can change a label.

Life behind the bars

He went to prison at the age of 16 for attempted murder, spending a year and a half in a max security prison. He decided he wanted to change who he was, he wanted to be different when he came out. He wanted to change as he wanted to have grown during his time in prison, as the women he claimed to love would have grown.

When he was taken out of max security prison and brought to a different prison. He would then be brought to another eight prisons during the rest of his sentence. Kosal although having regretted his actions, he was displeased by the sentence he was given.

"I'm not proud of hurting anyone. I wish I never did. But I got locked up at 16, and I got tried as an adult... why would you throw away the key? Then you're saying that this kid has no more redemption."

The life on his arms

His story kept everyone in the room on the edge of their seats and their jaws left on the floor. Kosal went on responding to question all about different aspects of his life, from his tattoos to the change he feels. His tattoos representing parts of him. His left arm represented his bad arm as the arm he shot with, his right, the arm he shook with. The tattoos on his arms represented these things. Kosal khiev developed fears of different people in prison, whether it being other inmates or officers, he noticed that people would fear the same people as the “fear is contagious”.

A house but not a home

Kosal was born in a Thai refugee camp and even though he was Cambodian he had never set foot in Cambodia. When he had completed his sentence he was exiled to Cambodia, exposed to a whole new place. He may have looked similar to everyone else but he felt and acted like an outsider. He has never gone back to the US and never will as he is no longer welcome.

Cambodian Son

In 2014 a documentary was released about kosal’s life, going from a prison in the US to a world renowned Cambodian poet. The documentary shows important moments from his life, from him teaching literacy in a cambodian dumpsite to performing at the 2012 London Olympics.

His poetry and his meaning

Kosal Khiev began writing his poetry whilst he was in prison, it was what he used to help himself grow and change. In prison he accepted the fate that he was going to die in prison, until he decided he was going to survive this when he began to write poetry. Writing about a girl he loved, furthering onto his family and then his prison experience. Kosal says that “poetry helped me to discover the value in everything”, that at one point he was not a person of value. Poetry gave him another form of expression.

Kosal Kheiv wants to be remembered as a person who never gave up trying.

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