Homecoming: The Realities of Being a Refugee

“If we knew what we know now, we would not have left. We were too young. We didn’t know what we would be faced with.”

It’s five o’clock at my parent’s home in South Jersey and our family gathers for my brother’s graduation party. A mixture of Vietnamese and English mingles throughout the house as memories of college are being passed around as advice for my younger brother. My dad and uncles argue around the dinner table over how best to answer the interview questions I had prepared for them. I give them a chance to think them over while they eat Pho and drink beer.

My desire to write this article stems from my work with the East Coast Asian American Student Union (ECAASU). In addition to wanting to learn more about how my dad and his two brothers came to the United States from Vietnam, I also wanted to share their life story as refugees. With today’s political climate and the amount of scrutiny that has been placed on refugees, I think that it is important to remember a time when refugees were welcomed with open arms, so much so that over 100,000 refugees from Vietnam came to America during the 1970’s. Today, there is now a refugee quota of 45,000 with much of the U.S. society scrutinizing new immigrants.

That being said, I believe that it’s important to remember the tough decisions that needed to be made in order for refugees to even come to this country. The sacrifices. The issues. I believe that if we, as a society, learn more about the stories of these refugees, we can be more compassionate and offer a friendly hand to these displaced peoples.

This is the story of my father and his brothers, Vietnamese refugees who settled in America for better lives for their families.

Thanh, my dad and the oldest, works in the government as an engineer and considers himself a  fish enthusiast. A man of few words, he still loves to joke around with his three sons. Thien, the second oldest and a pharmaceutical engineer, enjoys socializing with old friends over food and drinks when he’s not traveling to play golf in warmer weather. Toan, the youngest and an engineer at the Philadelphia Media Network plus a caring father of two young boys, enjoys learning about the latest technology and playing Word Connect. All three were born in southern Vietnam. Thien was the first to leave at 16, followed by Thanh at 17, and later Toan at 14.

I ask them why they decided to leave Vietnam to come to the United States.

Thien responds first: “Our mother had worked for Shell and our father worked for an British bank, so we were put on the Vietnamese government blacklist. On top of that, there was a war between Vietnam and China, and we knew that if people didn’t die during it, they returned home having lost limbs. It made sense at the time for me to tell my mother I wanted to leave for the U.S.”

Vietnam was and still remains as a Communist country today. If you worked for any Western corporation or had any family member serving in the South Vietnamese Army, your family was placed on a “blacklist.” This meant that it would become more difficult, or impossible, for you to obtain higher education or even a stable job. In 1979, the Sino-Vietnamese border war raged between the People’s Republic of China and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. These circumstances would push three young men to flee their home country for a better life in the United States.

“I felt like an outsider. I still do today. At the time, people would reference the movie ‘The Wizard of Oz’ and say things like, ‘There’s no place like home.’ I didn’t know what home meant anymore.”

“I was the last to leave. My brothers were getting all the attention from our parents, so I wanted some of that too,” Toan says.

Thanh quips, “I had no real reason to leave. I was just following my brother.”

I ask them about the voyage from Vietnam to Malaysia or Indonesia, but Toan teases, “That’s a bedtime story that I told my kids, and it lasted a whole month.”

I decide to change the question and ask what it was like for them once they had made it to the U.S. Thien recalls the moment he got off at the Philadelphia International Airport: “I was lost. Scared. I didn’t know what to do, where to go, or who to talk to. There was no instruction manual.”

Similarly, Thanh recounts, “I felt like an outsider. I still do today. At the time, people would reference the movie ‘The Wizard of Oz’ and say things like, ‘There’s no place like home.’ I didn’t know what home meant anymore.”

Most stories of refugees focus on the journey, the hardships, and struggles of the homeland, and the promise of hope in America. However, these stories leave out what people have to sacrifice by leaving, both emotionally and physically. “Everything has a price. We had to pay it in order to be where we are today.”

I ask them if they could go back in time if they would want to escape to the U.S. again. The room falls silent. No one says anything. No one looks at each other; they look down at their drinks. Toan’s eyes water.

Thien speaks softly, “I knew there was a possibility that we wouldn’t see our grandma.” His voice breaks. “But I did not expect to never see my dad again.”

Thanh tries to speak, his voice strained. He only manages to get out a few words. “There was never any closure.” He fights to hold back tears. “I would not do it again.” He turns to me, shaking, anguish in his eyes. “Would you leave your dad?”

None of the brothers have had the chance to fully speak to each other about the loss of their father and the unattainability of closure in over 20 years. This is the consequence of searching for freedom and a better life: the possibility of never seeing your loved ones again.

The media idealizes refugee stories and depicts them as having everything once coming to America, but this ignores the reality of separation families go through. In some cases, they are lucky and reunite with one another.

But, the reality for my dad and his brothers is different. Although they all lead successful lives, have families, and still stay in touch to this day, there is an underlying remembrance of the struggles they went through and the sacrifices that they had to make. This is an idea that echoes to this day with the current refugees arriving to the United States. Yet, our government has grown to marginalize refugees, something that we, as a society, can prevent. I think that it’s time that we start treating each other like family, one that is willing to help one another, no matter where they come from.

“These are my brothers and we’ll always take care of each other. We’re all we have,” Thanh states.

“I love my brothers. I always have and I always will,” reaffirms Thien.

“I was asked once why I chose to stay in New Jersey for so long. It’s because I’ve been moving around almost my whole life. Now my family is within driving distance. They’re all I have.”

This article is part of an ongoing series by the East Coast Asian American Student Union (ECAASU) to document the stories and struggles of refugee and immigrant communities. If you would like to share your or your family’s story, please contact Aishika Jennela, Director of Communications, or Vinh Dang, Advocacy Communications Coordinator, at aishika.jennela@gmail.com and vinh.dang@ecaasu.org respectively.