For those of us born in Ban Vinai Refugee Camp, that river was a source of flow in lives caught in waiting.
Dear refugee child leaving your country behind,
Many years ago, I was like you. I was six years old and my mother took my left hand firmly in her right. My father carried a white bag with paperwork and a plastic basket with balls of rice and a bottle of water for the family. My older sister stood, at eight years old, stiff and still behind our father and before our mother and me. We were in a line, one of many refugee families boarding a plane. It was my first time on such a journey and I was leaving everything I knew behind.
I had been born in a refugee camp. It was all I knew. Grandmother told me stories of a life before the war, of mountains so high they grew into the sky. Father spoke of a dream where one day my older sister and I might become educated. Mother yearned for a life where a person could work towards a future and not just wait for one. The life I lived was one where the adults who loved me held me close and cousins ran around from sunup until sundown.
Suddenly, the adults said that the life we lived could not continue. The camp was closing. All the refugees had to leave. “Where do we go?”— all the children wanted to know. The adults tried their best to answer us, “A better place,” they said. “A place far from here where you will be safe.”
For my family, the place where we were going was called the United States of America. It was a place called Minnesota. I asked, “What is it like? How will we live there?” My mother and father could only say, “We don’t know. It will be new for all of us. They will speak a different language and eat different foods. You’ll go to school. We will all find out together.”
When it was time for goodbye, I had none to offer — even to the people who loved me most — no toys to leave behind for cousins who had been my playmates and friends, no words for the aunts and uncles who all told me, “We love you. We will see you one day.” All I had was big ears and big eyes. Big ears to hold all their words close in all the moments to come. Big eyes so that I could remember their faces when I was lonely for the life we had shared.
‘We had become the same to the world around us’
On the plane, I was scared. The higher we went, the more uncomfortable it was for my body to adjust. All of us refugees sat in rows at the back of the plane. I sat with my mother. A stranger sat beside us. A man with freckles on his arms, underneath hair that grew thick and curly. He looked straight ahead. My father sat on the other side of the aisle with my sister. They said we could switch seats if we wanted — no one could tell the difference between my older sister and me.
We didn’t look alike to us. We certainly didn’t look like the rest of the kids on the plane. But the moment we left the refugee camp behind, it seemed all the people couldn’t tell us apart anymore. At the hospital where the nurses gave us our shots, they looked confusedly from one to the other, pointing to me or my sister, knowing who we were only after we nodded our heads when our names were called. In the plane, the flight attendants pointed to different kids and different parents and always they shrugged. This one or that one? They belong to this parent or the other? More shoulders going high for a second, hands up in the air, then the shoulders dropped. We had become the same to the world around us.
My stomach was full of air. My heart was heavy with tears. I couldn’t cry. I didn’t want to be a reason for my mother and father to be embarrassed. I missed my grandmother. The thought of her wrinkled face, tears falling in wet lines into the cracks of the wrinkles, made me tighten my lips, afraid they might open and everything would slip out. I kept swallowing the emptiness inside.
When the plane landed, I saw lights and shiny metal everywhere. Gone was the earthen floor I knew. In its place, there were carpets and hard cement and other things. Glass was everywhere: so many walls we could see through. The refugee people crowded together to make room for the walking people who seemed to know where they were going. Adults held children close. Bigger children held smaller children. The air smelled invisible. The scent of the dirt and the wind and the water and the trees were all gone. The plane had taken us to a place where people spoke quietly in different languages, where only a few people smiled so we would know they didn’t hate us.
Feeling unsafe on the way to safety
When we got to where we were going: a place with buildings and people and streets spreading far, I felt smaller than I had ever felt before. I watched my mother and father turn around in a circle, trying to learn about the new place and how they might keep us safe here.
Refugee child, I know what it is like to feel unsafe even on your way to safety. I know what it feels like when you know the adults are worried and scared and too busy trying to keep everyone going, so there’s no room to stop. No room to check-in. No room to tell stories. No room to play. When it feels like the world might have no more room for you at all.
Refugee child leaving your country behind and going to a new one, I want you to know that maybe no one on that plane knows what you are seeing, hearing, or feeling. Not your sister. Maybe not even your mother or father. But already these things are teaching you who you will be. Already, you know that there is going to be lonely places inside of you, forever. One day, when you are grown, when you know that the world is bigger than anyone, and that home is a place you carry inside as well as build outside, you’ll be all right.
Here I am, all these many years later, seeing you on the news, hearing about you on the radio, reading about you in books, and I feel all over again that tightness in my throat and the hammering in my heart for all the things that you and I carry that no one knows about.
Sending love from afar,
An adult who was a refugee child (and perhaps will always be)