My parents, sisters, and others on their boat at the Thai refugee camp.
What kind of desperation drives parents to put their one and two year old children onto a boat, into a treacherous sea, into an uncertain future?
30 years ago, my parents did exactly this. They brought my older sisters – then one and two year olds – onto a boat and launched it with dozens of others into a raging China Sea. No one on the boat knew how to swim. To be honest, when I hear them tell it, I don’t think anyone on the boat even knew how to operate it. Halfway to their destination – also known as the middle of nowhere – the boat gave out. They started to run out of food and clean water. They started to realize that they could die on those waters.
When a Thai pirate ship approached them, they sent all the women and children down to the lower deck and my father and others begged for their lives and the lives of their loved ones. In a final move of desperation, they brought up one of my sisters to show how bleak their situation was. After turning over every last possession they had, the pirates agreed to drag their boat to the shores of Thailand, where my family would become refugees with no true country to call home.
My family with me, their first American daughter, one year after arriving.
After some time in the refugee camp, my parents arrived in the United States. My mom was five months pregnant with me when she arrived and I would go on to be the first American in our family – but definitely not the last.
What’s extraordinary about our family’s story is that it isn’t. Our story is similar to millions of Americans across this country. As I listen to the refugee debate, it is clear that many people in this country have forgotten to look at their own history and those of their neighbors. If they did, would it be so easy to demonize people so desperate for a better life for their family they would step foot on that boat into an uncertain future?
Every day, I give thanks to my parents for risking everything to bring us to this country, to the friends and strangers alike who embraced us as we struggled in our first years in this country, and the opportunities I’ve been afforded because of the kindness and courage of others. As I watch the news and see the families and the young children awaiting their fate – I hope beyond hope, that someday they too can be writing these words about their families.