Tell me the story again. Please?
I remember those warm summer nights, lying next to my aunties. Some of us would be crowded onto a small mattress on the floor, while the rest of us lucky ones got the bed–there wasn’t enough room for three aunties and four nieces in this small room with the sloped, attic ceiling. But I was warm and comfortable, sleepy and secure lying beside them.
“Again?” one Auntie would say. “But you already know it.” My sisters and I would plead with them: “Please? We want to hear it one more time. Tell it again.” Inevitably, one of them would give in.
“It was a warm night, like this one….”
My mother, her siblings, and her parents were in their home. It was a warm April evening in Saigon. The year was 1975. They had just finished dinner when a loud explosion blew out the windows to the back wall of their house. My mom – the eldest of all of her siblings – would always say: “We learned during the war–when you can hear a rocket whistling somewhere overhead, you are safe. It is the ones you can’t hear coming that are headed right for you.” I used to imagine what that was like for my mother. Sitting on the floor of her living room, hands occupied with helping to get the days’ chores done, yet always wondering…what can I not hear? When will what I can’t hear finally find me? Will I realize what is happening before things are over?
My grandmother had worked for 20 years at the US Embassy in Saigon. She was recognized as a hard and loyal worker there. Her American boss had assured her over the past few weeks that when the time was right, he would send word and let her know where to be with her whole family. “Don’t worry, Rebecca. Don’t worry. We won’t leave without you. We’ll make sure you are taken care of,” he had promised. But she had not heard from him in days. She did not know that he had already left the country, leaving her and her family behind without so much as a telephone call.
Now, sprawled across the floor of their small home, knocked onto their stomachs with their ears ringing from the blast, my grandmother decided: it’s time to go.
With the sound of other blasts shaking their street and the homes around them, my mother, her 3 sisters, and her 2 brothers scrambled as quickly as they could. Each packed a small bag of what they considered essential items…some clothes, perhaps some photos. My mother–just 18 years old at the time–looked longingly at her new shoes. She had been so proud of them. They would not be coming with her.
Outside the house, they could hear the chaos throughout the city. Bombs were exploding, taking down shops, houses, and people. They ducked low, making their way from ditch to ditch in the darkness, slowly making it to the U.S. barracks by the airfield. It took them all night. When they finally arrived at the security gates, my grandmother showed her papers to the guards, telling them her boss’ name. “He told me he get us out,” she said in English. “He tell me, my whole family can come.” The guard shook his head. “I’m sorry. Your name isn’t on this list. I can’t do anything for you.”
“Please!” My grandmother begged. “Please…I work for Embassy. I work for you, for the Americans. If we stay, my family….they will kill us all. Take this.” Desperately, she opened her bag, grabbing the gold jewelry and small items of value that she had taken from her house. “Please,” she said. “Take all of this. Just help us.”
The guard took all of it, then let them through.
Somehow, my mother’s family finally made it to the evacuation point where thousands of people waited to be loaded onto helicopters that would carry them to ships. They had discarded their bags long ago–they were permitted to take nothing. They stood, waiting, empty-handed…nothing to show for their lives, and no idea of what was to come.
As they neared the front of the line, soldiers were barking orders, attempting to fill each helicopter to the maximum capacity. My grandfather and my uncles urged the women in the family to go first…to take the first available chopper. “No!” my grandmother said. “We cannot separate!” But my grandfather insisted. “You cannot wait! Who knows what will happen? You women go ahead of us so we can make sure you get out.” My grandmother finally agreed. But somehow in the chaos, my grandfather and my uncles lost sight of the women. They did not see which chopper they got put on, though they were pretty sure it was the one they had their eye on. As the chopper finally lifted off, they watched it power ahead into the darkness.
Suddenly, the night sky lit up with a burst. The helicopter that the men in my family had been watching exploded as a missile made contact with it. My grandpa and my uncles looked on with horror, their hearts in their throats, believing that they had just lost their mother and their sisters. “No!” my grandfather said. “That should have been us. It should have been us.”
My uncles….as a child, I loved to wrestle with these men. Their brown faces, laughing, tickling us, teaching us the latest knock-knock jokes they had heard, making us squeal and giggle. They were just boys on this night…12 or 13 years of age. I imagine that long journey to America for them. Grieving the loss of their sisters and their mother…feeling the weight of that responsibility…”it should have been us”…knowing they would make it to this new land…wondering how they would be able to start a new life without the ones they loved. It would be about two weeks before they discovered they had been mistaken. They had watched the wrong helicopter as it took off. My grandmother and my mother and my aunties had made it safely onboard a cargo ship that would take them to the Philippines. Living in tents that had been set up on the U.S. army base, my grandfather stumbled across one of my aunts by chance, and learned that everyone had made it out safely. It was a miracle they found each other there, amid the chaos of the crowds.
My aunties would tell us of the horrors of the large cargo ship that carried them to the Philippines. Unequipped to carry the thousands of refugees crammed onto it, the ship did not have the necessary food or accommodations. Each refugee family was given only one small bowl of rice each day as their ration, and a can of milk. My mother would tell us what it felt like to starve–how her stomach gnawed at itself, and her eyes grew larger in her head. She would turn down her spoonful of rice each day, giving it instead to her youngest sister–just a child at the time. When my mother reached the US, she weighed a meager 90 pounds. Out of desperation, some took to stealing what food they could get their hands on, but when they were caught, they would be forced to walk the ship with a sign that read, “Thief”, while others flung things at them, shaming them for their behavior. One older woman could not stand this punishment. She flung herself from the ship, where sharks soon got to her. There weren’t bathrooms on board that could deal with the numbers of people, so instead, they were forced to use a small plank that stood over the side of the ship, each time trembling at the thought of what might happen with one small slip. There was so little room with the thousands of refugees onboard, that they had to take turns sleeping on the small piece of floor they had staked out for themselves. Early on in the journey, they could look out across the sea and see another ship, full of people fleeing, but it was burning. They cried as they watched the ship burn, their hearts torn for the people on that boat…wondering if that would be their own fate as well.
The Migration Policy Institute states: “Vietnamese migration to the United States has occurred in three waves, the first beginning in 1975 at the end of the Vietnam War, when the fall of Saigon led to the U.S.-sponsored evacuation of approximately 125,000 Vietnamese refugees. This first wave consisted mainly of military personnel and urban, educated professionals whose association with the U.S. military or the South Vietnamese government made them targets of the communist forces.”
My mother’s family would most certainly have been killed by the Communist forces that overtook Saigon that April of 1975, or at best, placed in concentration camps (a fate some of my extended family did face). They escaped with their lives that night, but nothing more. Months later, they finally reached America (after living in refugee camps in the Philippines, and then Guam). But it was with empty hands and empty pockets.
I once asked my mother, “What did you bring with you to America? Was it hard to choose what to leave behind?” “What did I bring?” my mother repeated, the words not computing for a few seconds. “Nothing!” she finally said, with a tone of voice that meant “what a silly question to ask, foolish girl.” “We could bring nothing with us. We had nothing.”
Both of my grandparents were well-educated and knowledgable. They had provided comfortably for my mother and her siblings their whole lives. My mother had attended french school in Vietnam, and spoke not only Vietnamese, but fluent French as well as English.
But they had literally left with only the clothes on their backs. They could not prove their education or their previous work experience. My grandfather spoke no English. And the States were full of anti-war and anti-Vietnamese sentiments: refugees from a war that nobody even wanted to fight. They were a drain on society.
And yet a generation later, my sisters and I were here…snuggled up next to our aunties, sheltered in a small house in Lafayette, Indiana. My uncles and aunties were all students at Purdue University. They would later become engineers and computer programmers. My mother met my father at Purdue while they were both students. My father became a medical doctor, while my mother worked hard to raise five children–four of whom would become doctors…one of whom became a minister.
What made this possible?
Well, of course, my grandparents were hard-working and determined. They loved their family fiercely. They did everything they could to keep providing for my mother and her siblings here in the US–even after their world changed drastically and they were plunged into the hard reality of having to keep going in a place where they did not speak the language well, and many did not welcome them. My grandfather–a well-respected officer in the Vietnamese army–took a job as a janitor at a high school. The kids there were merciless to him, and he spent his days scrubbing toilets and cleaning up after them. He worked hard and humbled himself to take any job that would enable him to provide for his family.
But that’s not the whole story.
Because they wouldn’t have even had the opportunity to work hard if they hadn’t first received mercy. A small baptist church in Lafayette, IN were convinced that God’s heart was for refugees. Together, they committed themselves to sponsoring a refugee family. They raised money, found housing, provided clothes and furniture, and became an extended family to a family in need of one. Because of their generosity and commitment to love the people that God loves, my mother’s family was able to settle in a college town, where later, each of them would receive a top-rated university education, enabling them not only to support themselves, but to become contributing members of their new home country.
…the Lord your God is the God of gods and Lord of lords. He is the great God, the mighty and awesome God, who shows no partiality and cannot be bribed. He ensures that orphans and widows receive justice. He shows love to the foreigners living among you and gives them food and clothing. So you, too, must show love to foreigners, for you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt. Deut 10:17-19
More than that, my mother’s family was reached out to with compassion, kindness, and generosity that sprung forth from faith in a God who is a shelter for the refugee (Psalm 16). Through the kindness of this small congregation, my mother’s family heard the good news of what God is doing through Jesus Christ and came to believe. A woman from that same church used to have lunch with my mom every week. My mother once told me that it was in those lunch-time conversations with this woman that she came to understand the grace of God, and what it meant to be a “Christian.” A generation later, I am still the recipient of this faith community’s love and mercy, and my children are recipients of their love and mercy. We speak often of how trauma and violence filters down through the generations. Well praise be to God – the same is true of acts of love and compassion.
There are currently millions of refugees on the move (the latest estimate I read was 19 million), largely due to the situation in Syria and the persecution and destruction happening in ISIS-controlled territories. Tens of thousands more join them each day. At the same time that these large-scale crises are forcing families to flee for their lives, Western and wealthier nations have been instituting increasingly anti-refugee politics, fearful of what may happen with an influx of immigrants.
What can we do?
First, if you haven’t done so already, I urge you to sign this petition for the US Government to allow 65,000 Syrian Refugees to come to the US.
But second: I want to speak directly to anyone reading this who claims to worship the God revealed to us by Jesus Christ. All throughout the Hebrew Bible, God revealed Himself as One who looked after the refugee, the stranger, the foreigner, the orphan, the widow…and He commanded His people to do the same. When the US government allows these families in, they will need help. Let us be known as a people who welcome these strangers into our midst, because doing so reflects our Father’s heart.
A group of people from my own faith community (Life on the Vine Church in Long Grove, IL) are trying to gather folks who would be willing to co-sponsor a refugee family through Refugee One. This will take a lot of resources! They will need an apartment or home, clothes for each family member, groceries, transportation, furniture, household items, regular visits…To find out more about what co-sponsoring looks like, go here. And if you want to join our efforts, talk to me and let me know!
We are witnesses to all that these people are suffering through. What will we do in response? The trauma and loss that these millions of refugees are facing has long-standing consequences: in their own lives, and also in the lives of their children. God’s mercy and love, enacted and demonstrated through His people, ALSO has far-reaching consequences! Let love and mercy flow down like a river, bringing rest and refreshment not only to this generation’s refugees, but flowing down through each generation after them, so that they may all know the goodness and mercy of the One who is a shelter to all sojourners in the storm.
A Prayer for Refugees
*From An Invitation to Prayer
Almighty and merciful God,
whose Son became a refugee
and had no place to call his own;
look with mercy on those who today
are fleeing from danger,
homeless and hungry.
Bless those who work to bring them relief;
inspire generosity and compassion in all our hearts;
and guide the nations of the world towards that day
when all will rejoice in your Kingdom of justice and of peace;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.