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International journalist has local roots

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From the killing fields of Cambodia to the cramped baseball stadiums of the Kentucky bush leagues, journalist Katya Cengel has had unique travel experiences, always bringing her readers along with her.

But it was in the hard-charging newsroom of the Petaluma Argus-Courier where Cengel honed her journalistic chops, pursuing such stories at the latest fad sport of cosmic bowling.

Now an international journalist and author, Cengel hopes her new book, “Exiled: From the Killing Fields of Cambodia to California and Back,” will continue the discourse on immigration by presenting first-hand accounts of a genocide that has left multiple generations of Cambodian refugees in a cycle of upheaval.

Cengel has traveled to places like Latvia, Ukraine and parts of Africa in search of human interest stories, chronicling people’s lived experiences.

“I like writing about different cultures,” Cengel said.

The writer has significant ties to Petaluma, having lived in town on and off throughout the years with her mother and step-father. Her first newspaper experience, a summer internship at the Argus-Courier in 1996, was where she caught the journalism bug. Upon graduating University of California, San Diego with a degree in Literature, Cengel pursued opportunities for non-fiction journalism, leading to her first real job in the industry at an English-language newspaper in Latvia.

Cengel then moved to Ukraine, where she spent 3½ years chasing stories. While abroad, freelance writing became a key component of her travels, landing stories with the BBC, Al Jazeera and the San Francisco Examiner.

“When I came back to the U.S., it was hard to find a job because I didn’t have typical newsroom experience,” Cengel said.

Smaller newspapers told Cengel she was overqualified while bigger newsrooms felt ambivalent due to her atypical writing history. Cengel finally found a home at the Louisville Courier-Journal, where she was given free reign as a reporter.

It was in Kentucky that the stepping stones for Cengel’s first book were laid. A story assignment on minor league baseball metamorphosed into her book, “Bluegrass Baseball: A Year in the Minor League Life.” Released in 2012, the book tells an odyssey of minor league baseball players and the underbelly of the beloved American culture.

“Minor league baseball was a culture in itself,” she said.

Cengel eventually left the publication in 2011 due to layoffs and became a full fledged international journalist with the help of fellowships and grants.

A two week trip to Cambodia presented Cengel with an opportunity to do what she loves — tell other people’s stories. An article written for the World Affairs Journal preceded the book and prepared Cengel to dive deeper into the complex history of Cambodian refugees and their turbulent escape from genocide.

“After traveling to Cambodia to meet these people, I knew it was so much more than an article,” said Cengel. “It was time for their story to be heard and I wanted to tell it.”

Cambodia was plagued by the Khmer Rouge, a highly repressive and autocratic regime responsible for the death of 25 percent of the country’s population between 1975 to 1979. The group rose to power following the U.S. intervention and bombing campaign during the Vietnam war. They used tactics such as starvation, disease, torture and terrible labor conditions.

“It was a brutal and horrible time,” Cengel said. “They killed off all the doctors so there was no medicine, murdered the educated class, the government. They took clothes off the dead to replace their own.”

Cengel set out to follow several families spanning three generations: The older generation, who were adults during the genocide; refugees in their 30s and 40s who have brief memories of their home country but identify as American; and their children who were born in the U.S.

A lot of the refugee families struggle to integrate and move to the inner cities where they form their own gangs as a defense, Cengel explained. Some of them fall victim to the prison system and are deported for breaking the law.

The book comes at the peak of a national debate on deportation of migrant families, and as attack on the media have increased.

“I think what it means to be a journalist has gotten really mixed up lately,” Cengel said. “The role of a journalist is to report the facts and not to take sides.”

Cengel’s priority is to focus on the big picture of how immigration affects society, families and individuals decades after resettling.

“Deportation doesn’t solve anything because it’s one world and you’re just moving things elsewhere,” said Cengel. “We forget it’s a small world these days, and we are responsible for how things play out.”

Cengel currently lives in San Luis Obispo and teaches journalism at Cal Poly. Her next book called, “Reporting From the Ruins of the Soviet Union,” will document her time in Latvia and Ukraine.

She will be signing “Exiled” at the Petaluma Copperfield’s on Oct. 12 at 7 p.m.