I promised to write a more light-hearted post, but it’s been hard to find humor and joy lately. The images of kids and families, the audio clips, the “tender age shelters” haunt me. I know these visceral feelings come from the fact that I am a father with two small children, ages five and two. This week, I also realize that I’ve been affected because of my own story as an immigrant kid whose family fled poverty and a difficult life for the promises of America. I am sharing it here, mainly because it helps me to process my thinking, but it’s also a reminder for me, and hopefully for you, of the America that my family and I have known and loved since we were welcomed to its shores.
When Saigon fell, my father was put into re-education camp. He was released after two years of labor deactivating unexploded mines. I don’t recall us kids ever going hungry in my childhood, because my parents always made sure we had food. My mother would come home from her work, and sometimes she would bring me half a boiled sweet potato as a treat. Those were good days. I did not realize until later though how much my parents and relatives had endured in the war and during its aftermath. My father developed a sense of humor, but as much as he jokes about his experience in reeducation camp, the horrific things he saw—the severe abuse of the prisoners, the disfigurements from deactivating mines, the starvation, his friends being executed or disappeared—has and will affect him for the rest of his life.
My family fled to the US. We spent six months in refugee camp in the Philippines. I was seven, and the memories blurred. I have flashes of my mother, aunts, uncles, and cousins weeping at the airport, separated by a glass wall. We did not know if we would ever see them again. I can remember the camp and the rationed food each family would get each week; the rare allocation of half a cantaloupe or some sugar, which we kids fought over. I slept with a stick under my pillow because the adults told me that if I didn’t behave, the communists would come and take me away, and I was not going to be kidnapped without a fight.
After refugee camp, we were sent to Philadelphia. The US was physically colder than my family and I had been used to. Although at night in our mountain village a misty fog descended on the pine trees, bringing a certain chill, it could not compare to our first winter in the US. I encountered snow for the first time. I woke up, saw the entire world covered in white, and in my excitement to see something everyone I knew could only dream about, walked barefoot outside.
It was the other forms of coldness that would be the most difficult for us to endure. Although refugee camp was tough, it still felt like a community. We were with others who spoke the same language, who had gone through the same struggles. Now we were alone. We had one another—my parents, my older brother, me, and my younger brother—but we lost everyone we knew. Our neighbors waved to us, but we didn’t speak English. It was this chill that I recognized even at the age of eight: the loss of community and the hopelessness, the despair of not feeling like you belong anywhere. We all felt it.
When the loneliness and uncertainty were unbearable, however, we started to see how wonderful and generous our new home, America, would be. Our neighbors, with whom we could barely communicate, brought us warm clothing. Someone, probably a nonprofit organization, hooked up with a sponsor family, who bought us pots and pans. They took us to see The Nutcracker (I remember all of us feeling embarrassed because everyone was dressed so nicely and we were not). People helped my parents find jobs as dishwashers at a restaurant. They helped my brothers and me enroll in school. They checked in on us. They brought us food, some of which, like pizza, we would not yet know how to eat.
On the first week of school, I got off at the wrong bus stop on the way home and ended up wandering around downtown Philadelphia. I found a pay phone, like my parents told me to do if I ever got lost. I didn’t know how to use it, though, so I stood in front of it and held out a quarter and a notebook where my parents’ friends’ numbers were written. A lady stopped, asked me what was wrong. I pointed to my notebook, on the verge of tears. She called a number and waited until my parents’ friends came. I tried to give her my quarter to pay her back, but she smiled, said something I didn’t understand, and left.
I will always love Philly because of the kindness it showed my family. Unfortunately, we could not stay. Urged by my parents’ friends, with promises of better jobs and warmer days, my family moved to Seattle. Then to Memphis. Everywhere we went, we were met with the same sense of community and humanity. Yes, there were also a few incidents that made us feel like we didn’t belong, but they were far outnumbered by the concern, the compassion.
This is the America that I know. It is not perfect. There is a history of terrible things and a legacy of racism and systemic oppression that we must work to overcome. But this is also the America that welcomed my family when it was not sure if we had anything to offer. The America that helped us, looked out for us. The America that replenished our dwindling hope and restored a sense of community that my family and I were not sure we would ever feel again. This America inspired us to be good citizens, to work hard, to give back when we could.
This America inspired me to go into nonprofit work, so that I can one day pay forward all the kindness my family and I received, for which we will always be grateful.
It has seemed hopeless lately. It’s hit me more deeply than I realized. I don’t think that if my family were to try to seek asylum in the past two years that we would have the same experience we had three decades ago. It feels that the America we once knew has been lost, where kindness has been replaced by an omnipresent shadow of fear and hatred. Fear and hatred of people like me and my family—immigrants and refugees and asylum seekers who only want to pursue a life free from violence and poverty, where parents can send their kids off to school and know they would come back home safe each day.
It is easy to fall into despair, reading the news. You may be feeling the same way. It is hard not to feel despondent when unjust laws, and religion, are used to justify cruelty and brutality on children and families trying to escape the dire circumstances they were born into. When I was lost in downtown Philadelphia, my mother had been waiting at the bus stop for me; when I didn’t show up, she got on the bus and somehow in her broken English got the driver to retrace his route looking for me. I came home before she did. I will never forget her face, the tear-streaked anguished face of a mother separated from her child. And now I cannot look at my children playing or sleeping without thinking about all the kids out there who are lost, and their parents who are desperately searching for them.
It is awful to think that a country you used to know has changed so quickly, that it may no longer exist. But that America still exists. I see it every day. I have been traveling around the country, and the words and actions of people I meet reassure me that the kindness in this country far exceeds the fear and hatred. You are still helping, still protesting unjust laws, still fighting inequity, still bringing light and hope and music and art. You continue to restore my faith in the world, and my gratitude to be a part of this community.
We have a lot of work to do, and our work makes a difference. If you have been feeling despair at the way our country has been going, it is understandable, and you are not alone. But let’s not give in to it. Take it from this immigrant whose family has gone through some challenging times: The welcoming, compassionate, hopeful, community-minded America has always existed and will always exist. It is reflected in the millions of people out there, and in you.
This Saturday, June 30th, let us rally. Not just in protest of cruel and unjust policies, but in recognition of America at its best.
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