Sunday Forum: Letter to an Iraqi exile

I, too, was a refugee once. And young.


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More than three decades ago, I left Vietnam as a refugee and found asylum in America. Last night on the Internet, I chanced upon an image of you: a teenage refugee from Iraq newly arrived to America. Your shy smile reminds me of myself a long time ago.

Many have stepped onto the American shore since my arrival but few share such parallel tracks as you and I. You and your family fled Iraq; my family and I were once refugees from Vietnam. We found asylum in a country that had a direct hand in the chaos and bloodshed in our respective homelands. Iraq, it seems, is about to trump Vietnam in the American psyche as the reigning metaphor for tragedy.

I could, as with baseball cards, trade the Gulf of Tonkin Incident for weapons of mass destruction, the My Lai Massacre for Haditha, boat people for Iraqi refugees and "Vietnamization" for "Iraqization." The similarities continue to pile up as the war in Iraq goes on.


Andrew Lam is the editor of New America Media, based in San Francisco (alam@newamericamedia.org).

Though I know little of your past, I have an idea of what you're going through. Life in a new country is difficult and bewildering, but for those forced into exile, it torments to the core. You will always grieve for what was robbed from you and your family, and yet, while many perish, languish as refugees in Iraq's bordering countries or face a nightmarish existence back home, you have survived and found your way to The Promised Land.

A new reality is upon you and you must rise to meet it. This entails a drastic change in your nature, in your thinking and, possibly, in your very constitution.

You will learn soon enough that in the land of plenty there's plenty of irony. The champion of human rights one day can easily turn into the worst violator of those rights the next. The country that boasts, "Give us your poor, your tired, your huddled masses longing to be free," turns its back on those whose misfortunes are the direct result of its own actions.

Here, where freedom of expression is written into law, there's very little space to accommodate your biography, your story and your distress. What is a central concern in one country is often a footnote in another.

You will find that the American experience in Iraq will, in time, be reconstructed -- through books, movies and songs -- into a mythic reality around which the nation flagellates itself and reexamines what now seems its routine loss of innocence. But Iraqis themselves will be relegated to an asterisk. The complicated narrative of a civil war with so many sides and so many people caught in the middle will be dismissed until the American experience takes center stage. Everyone else becomes the enemy.

That is to say, the old, faceless conical-hatted Vietnamese in black pajamas of old Hollywood movies has donned the galabiyya to play the new antagonist in the desert.

But don't give in to the self-indulgence of despair. Despair fuels hatred, warping you into the image held by those who think the worst of you.

You have survived, after all, and you must turn your new life into a constructive expression, not just for yourself but for all those you love and care for.

How you do this you must find on your own. I can, from experience, tell you this: You cannot run away from the past, feign amnesia and embrace the new. I tried this, and it did no good. I learned to combat the rancor in my heart by embracing my losses, accepting the tragedies of my life -- my lost homeland, my dead friends and relatives, my traumatized family, my broken heart -- as a kind of inheritance. Over time, I learned to give it aesthetic expression, and this gives me solace, a center and, ultimately, a sense of direction.

My second piece of advice is to accept the contradictions of your new home. You must look at this country through two very different lenses: America versus the United States. The two can be as opposed to each other as the olive branch is to the cluster of arrows grasped in the bald eagle's claws on the Great Seal. In good times, America leads. In bad times, the United States dances alone.

The United States, after all, is a sovereign government with permanent interests, currently waging a war on many fronts. Rhetoric aside, it will trample upon the lives of innocents in its path in order to secure its interests. This it calls "collateral damage" and is yet another bitter pill you must learn to swallow.

Yet America remains the ideal that we all aspire to, everything you and I have ever dreamed of -- transparency, opportunity, due process, fair play and a promise of expansion and progress. It is where you work hard and earn respect, build a home and raise your kids, and where, with determination and a clear vision, you can rise to your highest potential. America tolerates difference, understands diversity and assumes you are innocent before proven guilty. America allows you to practice your religion, protects your privacy and encourages you to dream. It is a place where you can disagree with your neighbors, your politicians, even your government, without fearing violence or arrest.

While the United States is a fact, America is the deepest promise of this country, fashioned out of the fire of idealism, never fully realized but constantly re-imagined and fought over by each generation. Accepting the cold reality of what the United States does out of national security interests does not mean you should ever be complacent. You must correct and object to the wrongs, the immoralities and the injustices that are being waged at home and abroad, for this is the truest form of patriotism.

My third piece of advice: In spite of your sad memories, ally yourself to this country, and let it embrace and transform you as you will undoubtedly transform it. Look at the new faces of America: the Indian writer, the Salvadoran grocer, the Chinese restaurateur, the Haitian shop owner, the mixed-race children of many inheritances -- the entire world has entered here and commingled. The American experience no longer needs to be monolithic and singular. Instead, a complex, cosmopolitan, horizontal chorus is forming. And it needs your voice.

This is my final piece of advice: Tell your story. Commit everything -- each unmarked grave, each burnt-out house, each broken body -- to memory. And when you can, sing. It's your responsibility, your spiritual burden to speak up, to bear witness to the new tragedy for your generation.

As a Vietnamese refugee who became an American writer, I can tell you that you matter, that your sadness matters, the story of how you survived and triumphed matters.

Every story that belongs to you, in time, belongs to America.



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