Please Do Not Shut Out Refugees

 Please Do Not Shut Out Refugees

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My oldest son wrote me last night asking for guidance. He and his friends were indignant about the situation refugees confronted in the wake of President Trump’s executive order, which temporarily bars all refugees from entering the country.

Their frustration brought me back to where I was several decades ago, at the age of 12.
Like many other first generation Vietnamese Americans, I conveniently forgot the ordeal my family and I went through escaping our own war-torn homeland. I forgot about the bombs, the sounds of their explosions splitting my eardrums.

I forgot about floating on a broken ship for days on end, not knowing if we would survive or drown in the Pacific Ocean. I forgot what it meant not having food and water. I forgot about living in the refugee camp, in a tiny shack shared by a couple of families and sleeping in an area the size of a sleeping bag.

I forgot about being in a temporary country waiting … waiting … to see if any country would allow us to come and settle.

Even at 12, I wondered to myself: Does this means I can’t go to school unless a country takes us in? Will we be able to find a society without nightly curfews? Will I be able to go anywhere at any time? Is there a country where there is no war and bombs?

My family and I were lucky because we were able to settle quickly in the United States after waiting just half a year. Some Vietnamese refugees were stuck in the refugee camps for years before finding settlement. I quickly started school again. We had free housing provided by the organization that sponsored us. The adults in our family worked at minimum-wage jobs, enough to pay for groceries. We had food, shelter and we were happy.

Our journey to becoming Americans started there.

Yes, I conveniently forgot about that long journey. It was a distant memory buried deep in my mind, only once-in-a-while resurfacing in conversation. I forgot that I was not born in this privileged country. I forgot where I came from and what help I received to get to America.

My children and my friends’ children reminded me with their letter.

Gradually, the memories came back: Our family found a home in this beautiful country because those who were living here did not shut us out. We were not shut out because of our skin color. We were not shut out because of our faith. We were not shut out because we came from a communist country and so therefore could be considered a threat to American safety. We were not shut out because Americans feared that we would take their jobs away. We were welcomed with open arms.

To the American people, we were humans yearning to breathe free. We were people seeking a safe and peaceful place to exist. Today, we are part of the fabric of this nation. We are mother and fathers, students, and service members.

To quote Martin Niemöller's poem about the Holocaust:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.


I dare to paraphrase:

First they came for the undocumented, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not an undocumented.
Then they came for the Muslims, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Muslim.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.


I am so grateful to my children and their friends for reaching out to us parents, for reminding us of our past journey and of the generosity we were shown. So now I am speaking out. Please do not shut out the refugees. Please do not shut out the immigrants. Please keep Liberty's torch burning.

Michelle Ha-Thanh Nguyen graduated from UC Berkeley and is a senior product line manager for a high tech company in Silicon Valley


Related story: Vietnamese Americans Look Back and at The Syrian Refugees Crisis

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