I grew up most of my life without my dad. My mom and I were resettled in the US when I was 1 and due to tight immigration controls, my father was not admitted into the US until I was 14. That’s thirteen of the most formative years of my life without a dad by my side.
However, my family had been separated several times before I even touched American soil. Marriage wasn’t a thing in the refugee camps so when my mom gave birth to me in Sikiew Refugee Camp, officials never recognized my dad as part of my family (they barely even recognize me as my mom’s child). As a result, when my mom was told to transfer to Panatnikhom Transit Center shortly after I was born, we were forced to part ways with my dad.
Accepting life as a refugee meant giving up your voice and accepting whatever fate was assigned to you. Families, friends, and partners were often forced to separate. In fact, many refugees were already separated from their families before ever reaching the camps. My mom was the only one of 7 children to have made it to the Thai refugee camps, and my father left with one of his brothers, Luong, leaving 6 siblings back in Vietnam. Unsettled, alone, and penniless they were still able to make the best out of their situations by developing relationships with fellow refugees in their camps. Bound together by their struggles, hopes of making a living elsewhere, and the agony of loss, refugees created a bond with each other, sometimes finding companionship or making a family of their own during their time in the camp (although refugee camps are built to be temporary shelters, the average refugee spends about 10 years displaced).
My mom and dad were one of those couples who found each other in the camps, fell in love, and had a child. While conditions were rough, they were still able make sacrifices to raise a child in the camp. And they fought to keep that family as whole as possible.
After my mom and I were separated from my dad and uncle Luong, my uncle and father devised a plan to get to Panatnikhom Refugee Transit Center, a larger refugee camp about 100 kilometers southeast of Bangkok that only housed refugees accepted for resettlement or repatriation. Since there was no indication that my father and uncle Luong’s applications for resettlement were going to be accepted anytime soon, the only other option was to sign up for repatriation. They knew my 21-year-old mom needed help taking care of a newborn in the new refugee camp so they sacrificed their hopes of getting resettled and signed up for repatriation. Let me repeat… despite the last few years 5 of struggling as a refugee in hopes of leaving Vietnam for good, my father willingly chose to be repatriated back to Vietnam so that he could spend a few more months taking care of his newborn baby. He paid the price of 13 more years in Vietnam away from his wife and child on top of the 5 years he already spent in the camps for those few fleeting months.
A few months after signing up for repatriation, he arrived to Pannitnikhom camp, where he was still not recognized as my father. As a result, my mom and I were in different zones from my father and Chu Luong, separated by fences and barbed wire (which was still better than the 200+ miles that separate the Sikiew and Panatnikhom camps). However, my family’s drive to stick together prevailed as my father often risked refugee camp imprisonment to escape his zone to ours to reunite our family for a few hours. Luckily, he was never caught.
Time after time, my parents fought tirelessly to keep our little unit together. They made unimaginable sacrifices to keep a newborn baby alive and healthy despite all their roadblocks, not to mention the abhorrent conditions of the camps.
While I had no recollection of any of this in the first 1.5 years of my life, I felt its consequences throughout the rest of my life. Growing up most of my life without a dad, then all of a sudden living with one between the ages of 14–18, moving across the country for college, navigating my parents’ eventual divorce, and continuing to help them fight the demons that followed them from the camps (a post for another day)… I never really knew what it meant to have a whole family, and I guess part of that stems from the fact that forces beyond our control have always been tearing us apart from the start. The cards were stacked against us. Even though my parents tried their hardest to make our little unit whole, they were beaten down by decades of poverty, war, and the refugee experience.
It’s been a bumpy road, no doubt, but I consider our family one of the lucky ones. We all made it to the US, I got to graduate from college on a full ride, my little brother is out of the house as a college freshman, and almost as importantly, I’m in a position to share my family’s stories. Not all of my parents’ friends in the camps have had the same privilege and opportunity. Not all babies born in refugee camps live to see the day their parents get reunited again, however fleeting that might’ve been.
While our little unit is back to being broken, we’re still here, and as long as we’re still here, we’re still fighting.