“How do you feel about the word ‘refugee’?” He asked. He was a tall man in his mid-20s, bearded with an easy smile. A 49ers cap sat snuggly on his head, and dog tags hung from a chain around his neck. They belonged to his father, a Vietnam vet.
“I don’t think we should hide it,” I answered, “or sweep it under a rug like it’s dirt, like it’s something we can forget. Refugees don’t just pop up out of nowhere. There’s a reason why they exist, and most of the time it’s because of something someone with too much power did, and I don’t think we should forget that.”
Nodding. A smile. “I like that answer.”
He had come to ask me about my refugee experience—an assignment for one of his classes—and I’m always willing to share, but afterwards, there was a lingering taste of discomfort in my mouth. Although I hope that I had given this student perspective in some small way, I couldn’t help but feel like maybe I wasn’t refugee enough to be interviewed. Like maybe I wasn’t even refugee enough to defend being a refugee.
The meaning of “refugee”
Although the root of the word “refugee” is Latin, the word itself was originally used to describe a specific group of refuge seekers: French Protestants who fled France in 1685 after their religious freedom was revoked. More than 400,000 of these refugees fled to England, and soon thereafter, the word “refugee” became more generally used. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a refugee is anyone “who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence.” Flee. As in “run away from” to never return. Refugees can’t go home or are too scared to go home.
I was in my mid-twenties before I started using the word “refugee” to identify myself. Until then, I barely even said the word out loud.
Because my experience didn’t seem to match the experiences of the refugees I saw on TV, in magazines, on the flyers asking for donations. The smiling face in my refugee picture didn’t seem to match the destitute cries of the real refugees.
In 1975, the Americans pulled out of Vietnam, leaving the majority of their Hmong allies to flee to the mountains, to neighboring Thailand, to their deaths. I was born in 1985 in Thailand, ten years after the war ended. I was the child of refugees, but I wasn’t a refugee.
When this student began asking questions, poking holes, opening doors to the past, I looked into myself. That lingering taste of discomfort in my mouth? It was the taste of doubt. I had carried it around all these years, for you see, a refugee isn’t only a seeker of refuge--of safety and shelter--a refugee is also a survivor, a symbol of courage, and I hadn’t survived anything.
Or so I thought.
How I became a refugee
“So when you were living in the refugee camp, were you scared?”
I pause, remembering sewage-filled gutters, freezing water, and a smoky living space--dirt floor with an open fire--shared by several families.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I think I was too young to be scared.”
But I do remember a mosquito net in the Chiang Kham Refugee Camp, lifting the folds to find the pinkness of baby mice beneath, curled up into one another for warmth. I remember my aunt running off to get married, and us continuing the journey to the U.S. without her. Then Dad reflecting sadly on her decision decades later.
I remember smelling rice cake desserts in the market in the Phanat Nikhom Refugee Processing Center, so sweet I could almost taste them. Being pulled in a piece of cloth in a cleared fairground close by, the other kids’ laughter surrounding me in a cloak of childhood warmth. My brother’s leg with a hole in it after a deep surgery to remove a tumor. I would watch Mom wash him by the urns and worry about water getting in. I still cry thinking about that moment.
No, I was never scared. But even at five years old, I was worried. Very worried.
In 1990, we were approved to come to the U.S., and I remember wondering how the hell we were going to get on a plane. It was so high up and we were so far down. I remember the fried rice at the airport smelling and tasting odd--too odd to eat--because my taste buds and my tummy were used to far simpler food.
In the U.S., Dad continued to study English into the evenings, using the books he brought from Phanat Nikhom. As I began school, he helped me as much as he could, translating nouns and pronouns, helping me identify pennies and dimes and nickels until I outgrew him, until I helped him.
And even though I didn’t live through the Vietnam War, even though I didn’t run from the Vietnamese soldiers or swim across the Mekong River, to me--and to many of my generation who were born in safety in Thailand--those stories feel raw and real, as if we’ve lived them ourselves. Because in a way we did. Every time our parents tell their stories, every time we see pictures of buses packed with refugees, or hear the songs written and recorded in the Ban Vinai refugee camp, their experiences become our experiences.
The other side of being a refugee
For years after we arrived in the U.S., Mom played classic Hmong songs on a hand-held cassette player. Lyrics of goodbyes and lovers split apart by time and space filled our two-bedroom apartment in Willows, California. The voice of Tswb Siv Yis Vaj painted a picture of life in Laos, of roosters crowing before dawn, of the loss of parents, brothers, sisters, friends and homeland. As the years passed, Barbies, Sweet Valley Twins, Beverly Hills, 90210 and the American way of life eventually pulled me away, but never very far.
When images of Syrian refugees first popped up on my Facebook feed, I cried. There was a picture of a man wading through dark water, a boy perched precariously over his shoulder, a four-month-old in his arm, her face just above the hungry wave. I could hear her cries as the man’s face twists in desperation. Next picture: several pairs of feet peeking out of a blanket on the side of a train track. Then children with faces covered in a film of dirt and many more pictures of survivors making their way to whatever safety they could find.
I felt helpless in my small apartment, eating my small vanilla cream yogurt from Trader Joe’s. I felt guilty working in my office at my university where my biggest worry was often what I’m going to eat for lunch. After awhile, I found myself scrolling quicker whenever those images popped up on Facebook, as if my mind couldn’t handle the stark story they told. I feel ashamed now realizing I had tried to hide them and in doing so tried to hide myself.
Because I am a refugee.
Because being a refugee is so much more than just the flight to safety. It’s also about the years and years after that flight. It’s also about learning a new way of life, negotiating what it means to grow up in refuge, and living with the broken-heartedness of a whole people. And I’ve done that and continue to do that.
I am a refugee.
Chaos walks across the planet, scattering people like dirt. According to the UNHCR, there are 25.4 million refugees worldwide (and 68.5 million forcibly displaced people total), and over half of them come from South Sudan, Afghanistan and Syria. Every day, 28,300 people flee their homes because of “conflict and persecution”.
We are not dirt, and I can no longer keep scrolling. I can no longer hide. I want to see those pictures, I want to remember, so that when the next student comes around, I will have no doubt about who I am and what I want to say.
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This post was updated on June 20, 2018 to update refugee and displacement numbers from the UNHCR.