Women Refugees: Our Journey Into the Unknown…
March is declared as women’s month and women’s achievements and contributions to history and society are celebrated worldwide. This year MEWC is dedicating the month for women refugees, and creating a space for them to share their stories. Our aim with this project is to showcase the resilience and survival of what it means to be a woman refugee, and impact the perceptions of the media and the public about them.
Story of a refugee girl
My earliest memories as a child are of…
…standing in my family’s stilt house, watching my great-grandmother making a long golden necklace… She told me I was going on a long journey far away and I asked her if she was coming with us. She said she was too old and couldn’t join us.
… my uncle, carrying me on his back through the Cambodian jungle, as everyone in our group of approximately 15 people were running, sweating and being exhausted. In the stillness of the night, we prayed to Buddha to protect us from stepping on land mines, or from losing our sense of direction in the thick vegetation if not first detected by the Khmer Rouge or Thai solders who would be all too satisfied to just finish us off.
For days, from village to village, and through the darkness, we had finally made our secret journey from Cambodia to the refugee camp on the Thai border. It is with the gold that my family managed to survive the war, such as the necklace sewn by my great-grandmother through the hem of my skirt. My family was able to escape the killing fields by paying guides who knew their way to the Thai border.
Why would anyone flee away from language, family, culture if they weren’t truly desperate? They say that for this war, there was not a single family who had not lost at least one member. In some cases, only one member would survive. In our family, my grandmother lost her younger sister and her youngest daughter, who would have been my aunt. My little brother, born during the war, was too skinny, too malnourished, and barely survived. What began as a rebel group quickly turned Cambodia’s rice fields into killing fields: Between 1975 and 1979, more than 1.7 million people – one quarter of Cambodia’s entire population – died of torture, overwork, or starvation because of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime.
As refugees, we fled this nightmare scenario with only few clothes on our backs, with the hope of something better, especially for the kids: me, my brother, and my two younger cousins. In this place called America, my aunts and uncles found jobs cleaning hotel rooms, working as hotel doormen, washing dishes at restaurants, pumping gas, and cleaning wealthy people’s homes. We had to do two jobs at the same time, to wait for the buses while only wearing light shoes and jackets in freezing temperatures, but still our new life was good. This was the land of opportunity.
I remember my first day at school, walking into the classroom and all the other kids’ eyes were on me. I’m not sure who was more shocked, the kids who were facing a foreign girl with a different appearance, poorly dressed and didn’t even know how to say ‘hi’; or me, not knowing any English with eyes just staring at me? I was placed in first grade and had to repeat it since I didn’t know how to read. Luckily, as a kid, I adapted and learned fast. I soon became the family’s interpreter, going to parent/teacher meetings for my brother and cousins, and reading letters and documents for my aunts and uncles. Although my family worked too many hours, they always encouraged us to study hard so we could have an even better life than the one they had. Seeing how hard they worked, I could not imagine failing. At 6th grade, I finally had straight A’s. I was the first of my relatives to go to college, a liberal arts women’s university, finishing my BA in three and a half years – and was also then the first to get a master’s degree. My aunts and uncles eventually saved enough money to start their own Asian restaurant, where I worked every weekend. All the kids went off to college, found jobs and became productive citizens of the United States of America.
The story of my family is a story of refugees, of immigrants, and mostly, of the American Dream. It is one family’s story, a quintessentially American story, shared by many, and hopefully by many more to come, so that this Dream remains alive and reaches us all.