What is it like to be a child refugee?
Let me tell you. Let me put my face on it.
My heart remains broken for all of the children of lost parents. Five hundred and forty five. Say that, again and again and again until it sinks in. Go to the local elementary school and look at all of those faces and imagine all of them without their parents. This image has been hurting my heart, I physically feel pain when I think about this. And no this is not a medical condition, already had it checked out.
So for all of those who have turned a blind eye to these children let me make it a little real for you.
I WAS A CHILD REFUGEE. When I was four and half years old, the country that my parents loved so much was at war. My father was a high ranking officer in the Vietnamese Army fighting for the WRONG side, the side that the US was helping. He was fighting alongside Americans. All of this was a recipe for disaster for my family. So, when it became apparent that the US was pulling out of Vietnam, my parents made (what I assume) was a hard decision to leave everything that made them comfortable. Their family, their friends, their support system, their livelihood, their life.
With six children, ages ranging from 4.5 – 15 years old, they packed us up with the clothes on our backs and $2k. Reading that sentence again, I can not even fathom what that was like for my parents, but I do know what it was like for me.
On an overcast afternoon, a white van arrived in front of my parents’ home to take us to the airport. There was a weird feeling, I did not know what was happening. My mother was stressed, her sisters were there, at the van on the street to say goodbye. To this day I remember the tear that was gently rolling down my aunt’s face. The one tear that was not like any I had never seen before, it was cloudy, like there was sleep in her eye. I will never forget that. She was quiet, she was not smiling, she had a look. They ALL had this “look”. I remember things being a bit quiet, not much being said, we were in a hurry. The door closed and drove away. I remember leaving them behind. I/we would not see them again until 15 years later.
I don’t remember anything from the time we left the house to the time we were boarding the bomber airplane. It was dark, the propellers were running, everything was so loud. My parents and siblings were loaded on from the rear like cargo and seated on the floor of the plane. I was soooooo scared. I remember crying quietly. I REMEMBER my fear. This was FORTY FIVE years ago, and as I am writing this, I can not stop crying. I don’t remember much of the refugee camp that we were in, but I have been told we were there for six months. I can not imagine that it was a good time for my parents as we slept on cots in tents, being served food that we were not familiar with from a cafeteria and sharing facilities. But we were together and they did the best they could, they made the best of a bad situation. I do remember my first day of kindergarten. I remember the teacher who welcomed me into the class and sat on the floor with me and held me in her lap. This was the first stranger whom I remember holding me, she was a white woman. Then my mother left. I was fine. I have been fine from that day on. That was the day my life began as an American.
I know, we were the lucky ones. I was a lucky child refugee. Our family was allowed to stay together. I can not begin to imagine where my emotional well-being would be if we were separated. If I was left alone in a dark place. To sleep alone without being held when I was so little.
Though I have not thought of this in 20 years, it still hurts and it still haunts me. If I am still so affected 45 years later, when I had so much more than the 545, what will become of them? Will the US support their emotional well-being and insure their success? You may argue that they shouldn’t be here. But the reality is, they are here! And they are not dogs. They are humans. Here in the US, we treat animals better. If that made you feel funny, it should. If it didn’t you need to look deep inside of your soul and ask what kind of person you are.
I just put a face on it for you. Was that real enough for you?
I can only pray that my fellow Americans will demand better from themselves, from each other. We can do more, we can do better. We are Americans, a country of diversity, hope, and progress. We are the gold standard for all others to admire, lets start behaving that way. None of us got here by accident.
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