This morning, I learned that five more had died in a chase at the would-be Trump wall.
The other day, in 100-degrees heat, I saw a homeless lady wearing everything she had while seeking shelter under a shade. They could all be my mother back in 1975, when she was left behind in a PA refugee camp all by herself. At least it was then September cold, in a military barrack. Meanwhile, all three of us, sons and daughter (with 4 of her kids) got sponsored away into the four winds: divided and defeated. We were in a hurry to unburden ourselves from the Federal system, after three previous stops: Subic Bay, Wake Island and then Camp Indian Town Gap.
I understand separation well. Especially when it comes to families’ separation.
And mostly, when it is separation due to immigration.
I was 19. Debut as janitor by night, freshman by day. Yet I still cried my heart out. For being so helpless. For self-recrimination and for survivor guilt. We could not defend South VN. We could not hold our families together ( refugee sponsorships were voluntary, not a Congressional or Executive Order). And I could not work myself up to fill my first grocery card spendinf away my $150 government one-time allowance while my mom, retired teacher and fellow escapee, stuck behind in the camp without any hope of resettlement (reminds me of team picking, when the opposite captain decided who to be on his/her team: survival of the seemingly fittest). When in graduate school, I was quite motivated to be among the first few to fly back and help fellow Boat People in their resettlement process.
I still held dear to my mom’s discharge paper, dated a few months after all of us had been relocated into neighboring North Eastern States. Despite the now “happy ending”, our refugee tale has never been told in detail. We “‘bragged” on facebook about my sister’s 80th birthday, with decorated model minorities snippets and bleached teeth – but not dark tales about betrayal and skin-shedding, very much like Muholland Drive of David Lynch ( zooming out opening shot from a perfect middle-class green lawn, but full of insects and bugs underneath).
My Dad joined us a decade later (1985) while my Mom got picked up after much deliberation by a Jewish D.C. lawyer consortium to reunite with my sister and her family.
I meanwhile worked my way through each Student Union bathroom (where Bruce Springsteen once made a stop to grace us with “Born to run”) at night, and each course reading assignment by day. The campus Jesus freaks figured me for an easy sale, dialectically worked their rehearsed pitch about heaven-hell, Yes-No proposition to get to heaven stair-less-ly . To date, no Christian friends or foes ever asked and learned about my hidden secret: I brave myself enough to ask for my name be put in a separate file, with my newly issued Social Security, so I wouldn’t be a burden to a band of nine, 4 of which children. Self-separation was painful, gut-wrenching and necessary for survival.
I was that immigrant’s child that had been “forced” to come of age in a hurry, to re-learn what it means to be human in a world that got tired of giving out spare change. I was initiated into the world of work from the ground up: to wipe others’ toilets waiting for the ships to come you. That tale involved voluntary/forced separation (only a few hundred millions appropriated for an evacuation of thousands), while being together would depend on sheer determination and decency let from a post-Vietnam already weighed down after a decade of war and division. I cut my family ties to get from Kent State to Penn State, to find my own voice and my own identidy. The youngest and weakest link would wipe away involuntary tears to become a man of hope and helping hands to others. I did not know at the time what had been awaiting for me in Happy Valley, but I know now that I would not be silent while others are going to step into the same deep hole. I would do everything in my power to cry out “hey, that’s not right!”.
Separation of families always brings horror, and togetherness hope.