“I no speak English good.”
Growing up, I cringed every time my mother said those words. Words that flowed out of her mouth to salespeople, cashiers, and my friends’ parents when she had a tough time articulating in her second language. I didn’t get over my embarrassment until I became an adult.
Learning a brand new language at 15 years of age is challenging. English is full of hard consonants and flat vowels that paled next to Vietnamese’s tones and musicality. As a refugee, my mother’s English lessons were all trial by fire. Yet I never heard her complain about learning English, a language that I speak better than the Vietnamese my mother taught me.
In April of 1975, mere days before Saigon fell to North Vietnam’s communist leaders, my grandfather secretly gathered his entire family onto my uncle’s small fishing boat. Thirteen men, women, and children set sail with no set destination. My grandfather only knew that a United States naval ship was somewhere off the coast of South Vietnam. He gambled on a rumor; the equivalent of a stranger pointing, “It’s that way.”
Floating on that small boat meant leaving everything and everyone they knew. My grandfather had witnessed life under communist rule once before and refused to put his family through it. Floating on that boat also meant forsaking their own country. If they were caught by the North Vietnamese, they would be considered traitors. Floating on a fishing boat in a vast ocean meant that possible death would be preferable to living under a communist regime.
Right now, “refugee” is a loaded word. The European Union countries are playing an ugly game of “Not Me!” with Syrians refugees. Hungry and desperate families drifting on inflatable boats are being turned away from European borders. Like Vietnam during the 1970s, there’s currently a civil war in Syria. And just like the Vietnamese Civil War, it didn’t happen over night — for the past four years, Syrian civilians have lived in fear and violence.
When people choose to leave everything they’ve ever known, to enter a country whose language they don’t speak, it’s usually a last resort. Fleeing your country is an act of desperation on the surface, but is really a leap of faith. Faith that your children will know a life that isn’t a war zone.
One common argument against taking in the Syrian refugees is how they will drain the European countries’ resources. Iceland declared they could only accept 50 Syrians but the government was shamed into raising their quota after 10,000 Iceland residents offered their homes to the refugees. (They still only raised it to 500.)
As a child of two Vietnamese refugees, I can tell you this “resource drain” argument is selfish and shortsighted. Yes, my family used United States resources when their boat was spotted by a U.S. naval ship. The United States government took my family to a refugee processing center in Guam, before sending them to a hot Floridian tent city, where they were moved again and again and again. They finally settled down in Louisville, KY after a Catholic priest sponsored their large family and then made their final move to Louisiana, where I was born. It’s true that in the beginning, my large extended family could only take from the United States government; they had nothing to give in return. They had no jobs and almost everything they owned came from the kindness of strangers.
But as soon as my family could find jobs to support themselves, they did.
My mother studied the hand-me-down clothes from her church, and taught herself how to sew her own clothes. Her skills eventually got her a job altering rich women’s fur coats in a high-end department store. My father, a well educated man by Vietnamese standards, spoke two languages and was a whiz at math. His only problem was that he studied French in school and not English. Unfortunately, the language barrier meant that he could only find work doing manual labor. Sunburned and splattered with paint, he often didn’t get home until after dark — even though he left for work well before I woke each morning.
These refugees, my parents, were exhausted every night from their blue collar jobs — which were all they could get. Still, my father studied hard to become a naturalized citizen, which happened when I was 10 years old. Others in my family saved up to open their own businesses: seafood shelling plants, nail salons, and restaurants. They hired and trained other refugees and immigrants — never forgetting the challenges of a new beginning in a new country.
As one of the first American-born members of my family, I see firsthand how hard they’ve worked. They own homes and cars. They even have 401Ks and life insurance. Not only has my family worked jobs many of college-educated Americans turn their noses at, they’ve also created jobs for others. And additionally, support our economy every time they pay for new clothes or a new car.
Thanks to my family, I never had to worry where my next meal came from. I was able to go to college and become the first in my family to graduate. Thanks to my family, I’m able to earn an income from using my brains and not through manual labor. Syrians fleeing their war-torn country may be a drain on the EU’s resources now, but the tide will turn once these families are back on their feet.
Taking in the refugees is an investment in the EU’s future citizens — not to mention the right thing to do. I’m proud of my parents, and I’m proud to call myself the daughter of refugees.More On