Development & Education

First he joined a gang, then he was deported, now he's saving lives

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Tuy Sobil works with youth in Cambodia to help them get ahead.

Growing up in Long Beach, Tuy Sobil became enamored with breakdancing, eventually joining a dance crew and adopting the nickname “KK.”

But in what he describes now as one of the biggest regrets of his life, Sobil became a member of a Crips gang in Long Beach at the age of 13. After spending eight years in prison for an armed robbery he committed at the age of 18, Sobil, an undocumented immigrant, was deported to Cambodia, a place where he didn’t know anyone and barely knew the language. Sobil, then 26, had to leave his son behind and has not been able to return to the US since.

But while Sobil was required to leave the United States, his love of breakdancing never left him. After showing off his breakdancing to youth in Cambodia, Sobil decided to create Tiny Toones, an organization dedicated not only to teaching breakdancing but also English and Khmer language, history, and computer skills to kids who can’t afford it.

Tiny Toones was recently featured in a music video titled “Anakut” that screened at the first-ever CambodiaTown Film Festival at the Art Theater in Long Beach earlier this year. VoiceWaves caught up with Sobil aka “KK” via Skype, and chatted with him.

How did you get into breakdancing in the first place?

I started breakdancing when I was eight or nine, while growing up in Long Beach. I learned it from the street and eventually I became part of a dance crew called Ground Floors. We toured through different cities on the West Coast.

As a young kid, what led you to join the Crips gang in Long Beach?

Here’s the way I look at it: Certain kids that grow up in certain places want to be a part of something cool. Joining a gang was a waste of time. It is one of my biggest regrets, becoming a part of something that wasn’t meant to be. It was a waste of my time, and waste of my life, period.

What is it about breakdancing that appeals to you?

Breakdancing has helped me a lot when I’m missing my family because I can take my stress out on the dance floor.

How has Tiny Toones helped at-risk youth in Cambodia?

When I first started Tiny Toones, my biggest goal was to get these kids an education. A lot of them want an education, but can’t afford it, because all the education in Cambodia costs money. Here at Tiny Toones we offer English, Khmer, computer and history classes for the kids. We also pay for their university education through funding and donations.

What do you want each child to take away from Tiny Toones?

I want each child at Tiny Toones to take advantage of their education and become what they want to become. All we can do is offer to help them but we can’t make them who they want to be unless they fight for it.

Why are kids who do drugs not allowed to be a part of Tiny Toones?

Because it’s like a virus. One kid using drugs can lead to another 20 kids using drugs. If we see one of our kids using drugs, we try to get them to go to a rehab facility. When they come back, they have to show how long they’ve been clean. I follow up on them, and when I think they’re ready, I open the door for them again.

What message would you give young Cambodian American youth in Long Beach who might be struggling with the same things you went through as a youth?

I want each child to follow their dreams and take the time to see what they like and push themselves to become that thing. Some kids give up on themselves and say, “I can’t do it.” Most kids really want to become something, but they decide not to pursue it because they’re afraid other people will make fun of them, and they want to be a part of the crowd.