On Monday, in a building that’s less than a fifteen minute walk from my apartment, the UN General Assembly convened to tackle the world’s worst to-do list, in particular how to handle the refugee crisis. That same day, Donald Trump’s son referred to refugees as poisonous skittles. Now that same administration is poised to take power.
I’m here speaking today as someone who is a person, a proud American, and not a piece of candy.
I’ve been following the refugee crisis probably more than the average American, and I’m reminded of a lot of writing that’s been haunting me in the last few weeks, such as the above New York Times article on refugees in Denmark. It’s pretty terrible, for pretty much everyone involved, clearly some worst than others.
As much as we’re having problems with Islamophobia, xenophobia, and racism in the United States, it can pale in comparison to a lot of Europe. This was quite vivid to me especially since I was just in Copenhagen and London shortly before the Brexit vote.
A Danish man actually tried to harass my friend and I when we were in Copenhagen asking, “why refugees get this and that?” and gibberish about some grievance about perceived allocations of resources. We were kind of glib about it, but it was still troubling, which I wrote about awhile back about the irony of him going after two well-to-do vacationing Asian Americans descended from a recent refugee past.
Today I feel the call to speak again, echoing the words of the this year’s Pulitzer Prize author of The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen:
Today, when many Americans think of Vietnamese-Americans as a success story, we forget that the majority of Americans in 1975 did not want to accept Vietnamese refugees. (A sign hung in the window of a store near my parents’ grocery: “Another American forced out of business by the Vietnamese.”) For a country that prides itself on the American dream, refugees are simply un-American, despite the fact that some of the original English settlers of this country, the Puritans, were religious refugees.
Today, Syrian refugees face a similar reaction. To some Europeans, these refugees seem un-European for reasons of culture, religion and language. And in Europe and the United States, the attacks in Paris, Brussels, San Bernardino, Calif., and Orlando, Fla., have people fearing that Syrian refugees could be Islamic radicals, forgetting that those refugees are some of the first victims of the Islamic State.
Because those judgments have been rendered on many who have been cast out or who have fled, it is important for those of us who were refugees to remind the world of what our experiences mean.
People tend to have different frames of reference for who they identify with and who they humanize more. This refugee situation has been particularly troubling for Asian Americans because it feels so familiar.
Migrants pulled an inflatable boat crowded with Syrian refugees arriving last month from the Turkish coast on Lesbos island, Greece. From the NYTimes.
My family didn’t enter the United States as refugees. We came as immigrants. But our story of being in America came as a result of my grandparents fleeing China to Taiwan as the losing side in the Chinese Civil War who would have imprisoned, tortured, or slaughtered had they stayed. We waishengren Taiwanese are not technically refugees. However, many of the psychological wounds in experiences of our families who left their homes unwillingly to never see anyone or anything they knew again resonate on for our people. Many felt that Taiwan could never be a place they could belong and left to the United States, bringing our story to this part of history I’m living in.
Fleeing China. Photo taken from China Times
As an Taiwanese American growing up in San Gabriel Valley and later attending a UC campus, I grew up around Asians who were refugees from the Vietnam War, eventually living with Hmong roommates in the dorms of a school that over-indexed for Asian Americans from these backgrounds.
As we Asian Americans converge with the histories of our peoples and our stories blurring into a shared collective memory, this narrative of unwanted people in boats cast fleeing destruction and persecution cast adrift in subsequent cycles of loss, alienation, discrimination, and suffering in strange lands is a potent arc in our story, one we see tragically being repeated now.
Our psyches continue to bear witness to this history.
Fleeing Vietnam. Photo taken from Canadian Encyclopedia
Today, many Americans consider Vietnamese Americans a model minority, conveniently forgetting how unwanted they were and how hard they many have it and still have it. Some of them even consider themselves the good immigrant and shirk away from the Syrian refugee crisis.
For many Westerners, people in the United States, Canada, and Western Europe, this idea of refugees continues as a faceless mass on dinghies in the sea or heartbreaking pictures of children, as those to be pitied or praised from afar but not to be dealt with as actual people. We don’t like to remember that the United States turned away Jewish refugees, including Anne Frank.
These pasts rendered not real. People abstract.
It’s important for those us of who have these experiences to show our existence for those who cannot. For those of us who see those adrift in the Mediterranean and see our own past staring back, we have to be real to counter the ignorant and the political opportunists that dehumanize other people.
The St. Louis: A boat carrying Jewish Refugees refused by the ports of Cuba, Canada, and the United States. A quarter would eventually perish in Nazi death camps. Picture from Wikipedia.
As Nguyen writes:
We can be invisible even to one another. But it is precisely because I do not look like a refugee that I have to proclaim being one, even when those of us who were refugees would rather forget that there was a time when the world thought us to be less than human.
Many former Southeast Asian refugees are helping Syrians. I continue to advocate that the United States and Canada, despite imperfections, are much better suited to give refugees an accepting home.
This picture of a gay Syrian refugee with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at Pride and Aatish Taseer’s articulation of his love for America they day he got his green card paint a more vivid picture than any empirical example of success in re-settling people why these places have been and continue to be more prepared to integrate people than parts of Western Europe.
It is important for those of us who have memory and can bear witness as real people living in the West must continue to hold values sacred, to articulate humanity, and also to fight, we have to fight, against the tide of bigotry, intolerance, and inaction. These battles have to be refought every generation. There is never a moment which these values are safe, especially now.