Back in ’75, my family was composed of about thirty Vietnamese war refugees that piled on a commercial freight ship with less than a thousand others. After crossing the Pacific, my grandparents/aunts and uncles/parents/three sisters/skinny-legged cousins spilled out into the Southern California desert haven Camp Pendleton, where their bell bottoms clashed with the troops’ fatigues, there was more donated Fanta than clean water, and my siblings spent their days playing hide-and-seek in dirty brown tents. At that point affianced, my aunt and uncle married in a small, family/friends/fugee-only ceremony in the dirt, to avoid being split up when they were shipped out to live with sponsors.
But it was Reagan time now, and my family had just moved into a three-story house on unused farmland in rural Missouri, about ten minutes away from a country hospital where my father took over as chief of surgery. This felt like the beginning of “the good life” that everyone dreamed of: being Americans–not just refugees or even immigrants, but bona fide Americans. It wasn’t about surviving anymore, or fleeing the war, but taking root on the corn-loaded land, bolting a bronze eagle statue and American flag on the front of the house, working hard, and living large.
I am convinced that my middle sister was filled up with this feeling of arrival, and of American-ness, as she walked out of her sixth grade class at 3pm, her prized first pair of Jordache jeans giving her the semblance of a rump, and an in-hand, heavy trumpet case weighing her 80-lb. frame to the right so much that she walked lopsided. Until, of course, the quiet sound of success was interrupted by a cacaphony of yelling from a school bus on her left.
“Re-foo-gee! Re-foo-gee! Get out of here! Re-foo-gee!”
A boy with freckles and hair like hay had shoved half of his body out of the rectangular school-bus window. He was screaming, loudly, at her.
“Your dad is a re-foo-gee and he charges too much for hospital bills. You re-foo-gees should go back to China!”
My sister, totally confused because she had no idea what a rafoojee was and had never even been to China, made an immediate U-turn and walked back into the school building. She missed her only ride home and had to call my parents to pick her up that evening. That night, she realized that Roger, the boy from the bus, didn’t know how to pronounce “refugee.” She also realized that even if the family had arrived, not everybody liked it.
Every time I hear or tell that story, my heart hurts a little. Worse things have surely happened, but I always think about how sad it means to have the word “refugee” turned against you. As a refugee, you are simply a human seeking refuge, safety, protection. To mock that action that seems so…inhumane. And then my mind wanders… how many of my people suffered for being refugees? Why would anyone be so mean to us?
Today, Jen informed me that five Asian countries–China, India, Malaysia, Thailand and Bangladesh–have been identified as among the worst violators of refugees’ rights in a global survey released ahead of Friday’s World Refugees Day.
“We’ve tried to call attention to these countries because they have been particularly egregious in their treatment of refugees,” USCRI [US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants] president Lavinia Limon said.
“Some of them have forced refugees back into dangerous situations, some of them have warehoused refugees in camps for decades, and some of them have done their best to make sure refugees never enter their territory. Some of them have done all of the above,” she said.
Shit, man. I think I’d rather have “re-foo-gee” screamed at me from a school bus.
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