My family would tell me stories sometimes as I grew up. They were not happy stories most of the time. No, there were no fairy godmothers in these stories. And happy endings were dubious at best. The stories they told were of danger and death, of running through the jungles of Cambodia with just the clothes on their back, of sneaking across the Thai border because the horrors in your country were worse than you could ever have imagined. They told stories of the loved ones they lost—those who would have been my grandfathers, aunts and uncles, and siblings—who I would never meet.
When I hear those stories I feel an immense feeling of loss, anger, and despair–loss for our family, anger for our situation, and despair for the conditions that drove my family away from their beloved country. I feel loss for the country I cannot call home. I feel loss for the language that I struggle to keep. I feel loss for the culture that we hope to maintain. Most of all I feel loss for my family and for me.
Although I do not and cannot claim the refugee identity of my parents, I feel as if I, too, am a refugee. Let me explain.
The refugee experience does not end when you have found a new country to attempt to call home. It does not end even though you may have found safety and security. It continues to manifest in ways that are not so easily recognized or understood. This is the nature of trauma.
No one wants to leave their home under threat of persecution, conflict, and violence. Choice is never involved in these situations when safety and security is threatened. There is no choice involved, only the advent of fear.
The Khmer Rouge forced my family out of their homes into labor camps in the countryside. They were not allowed to keep anything that were symbols of their old life save their memories and instead were forced to work in inhumane conditions in the rice paddies. Their family members were beaten and starved—many died. The conditions in which they struggled to survive were horrifying. Even when they escaped and were able to find refuge in the shanty camps lining the Thailand border, it was not home. Their ability to choose for themselves and their families were taken away multiple times—first by their own countrymen, then by the refugee identity, and then by systems that silenced them.
Their ability to choose for themselves and their families were taken away multiple times—first by their own countrymen, then by the refugee identity, and then by systems that silenced them.
War, death, and fear are all traumatic events in and of itself. Those images and feelings never leave you. I know this because I lived through my parents’ unsuccessful attempts to overcome their memories and their trauma.
My family may have escaped death and danger; however, the mental, physical, spiritual, and emotional traumas of these experiences live on. When they came into this country, they came with little else but the clothes on their backs and clutching the identification cards that were symbols of their freedom. Uncertainty and anxiety levels were perpetually high as they attempted to navigate this entirely foreign country and system. Learning a new language and culture as they strived to put food on the table was extremely taxing and difficult. Having a family and holding it together was even more complicated.
My family may have escaped death and danger; however, the mental, physical, spiritual, and emotional traumas of these experiences live on.
I was eleven when my mother’s life ended in an act of self-violence. Shortly after, my father left. My three siblings and I essentially became orphans. Our home and foundation were destroyed; our roots were shattered. We perpetually are trying to pick up the pieces. Despite having the fortune of being taken in by our maternal grandmother and aunt, our family was never the same–just as our larger family was never the same after fleeing their country. Choice had been taken away from us. We had become parentless. Rootless. And so we wander, trying to find home and foundation that is solely ours.
There are many parallels I see between the lives of my refugee parents and the lives of their children. Though our experiences can never match the magnitude of what our family experienced during the Khmer genocide, we continue to feel the effects of their traumas. This trauma was our inheritance.
And if we are not careful, we will also give it to our own children.
The life and influence of a refugee does not just end with the first generation of those afflicted by these experiences. No, the refugee experience continues and lives in the lineage of the family. It shapes the relationships between parent and child in complex ways. It shifts power and twists traditional family dynamics. It changes and alters people, families, and communities.
I speak much about loss because it is important to understand all that was lost in the first place. My family’s loss is my loss. And loss needs to be mourned. It needs to be recognized and validated, not pushed under the rug and ignored or else it will continue to grow.
I share this not to depress others but to elucidate the reality of how refugee experiences affect individuals and families for futures to come. On World Refugee Day we give recognition to the realities of over 42.5 million people who wander because they have been forced from their homes by circumstances beyond their control. But so many more people are impacted and will be impacted by these experiences in ways that need to be understood. Recognized.
On this day, and every day, I mourn for the loss that characterizes the refugee experience. However, as a child of refugees, I also celebrate the hope and the resilience that makes the future possible for their children.
Varaxy Yi Borromeo