The sky is black, blacker than anything you’ve ever seen. The moon is nowhere to be found; the light of any stars did not choose to make the journey with the refugee. He waits sleeplessly, pushed to the rail by the mass of passengers along the deck, as the boat sails through the night.
A heavy wave makes the tiny wooden craft shudder, and the man’s thoughts churn as he thinks about his family. The last time he’d been on the ground of his home, there’d been eight of them. One by one, they’d made their goodbyes, and taken their own boats. Now it’s just him, his older sister, strangers, and the sea.
He doesn’t know what had happened to them: whether their ships had sunk, broken by the ocean, or whether they’d been attacked by the pirates who preyed on those who fled. Perhaps they had all made it safely across, but at the moment, with nothing but the ocean and and other lost people around him, the thought is too crushing to entertain.
He doesn’t know where they are; he doesn’t know where he is, either. In the darkness around him, he doesn’t know where he’s going. As the boat rocks on, all he knows is that he’s going away from everything he’s ever known. In that, there is hope.
We know this story. People like that refugee are going through that terror right now, on the other side of the world. But this narrative isn’t theirs; we’re not going to take their story for our own. The story that we’re sharing is the truth of some of our fathers and mothers, one that took place forty years ago. This isn’t the story of the Syrian refugees-—it’s the story of the Vietnamese boat people.
In a country torn by civil war and a hostile Communist takeover, people fled Vietnam by the thousands on ships and boats in search of safety. They made their own journeys through refugee camps and had their own reunions with the families they lost. They landed here, in America, and more specifically, in cities like Milpitas. Now, they’re the people we interact with every day, in our schools, our hospitals, and our neighborhoods.
It’s so easy to think of those on the other side of the world as “them”-—a different skin color, different circumstances, different religion. Even as stories are released of the harrowing journeys they experience, stories that we should all fundamentally understand, it doesn’t really register as real. But in our community, those refugees aren’t so far away: for many students at the school, the refugee story is right here, in a classmate or a best friend. For others, it’s as simple as the ride home.
We might not have all heard this exact story growing up, but for many of us, it’s familiar. It might not be Vietnam we’re running from, and it might not be war that brought us here, but so many of us in this community have roots in other countries and other cultures. We’ve been offered our own opportunities off the back of the dream of the people who gave up everything to come here.
Now, as thousands of Syrian refugees are rejected, immigrants are turned into scapegoats, and, most recently, our president has signed an executive order aggressively limiting immigration, we’ve come to a crossroads: do we focus on our own affairs and block out potential threats, or provide sanctuary for those who need it, opening ourselves up to infiltration from those who want to harm us? It’s not a simple question, and when we start to associate every stranger, every person abroad, as someone with the capacity to bring down skyscrapers, it’s easy to think of them as aliens and a needless risk. Letting even one radical refugee can hurt American citizens, and it’s something we have to take into consideration.
But for so many refugees who are denied, they’re not people who want to harm us. They’re not people who are going to steal our jobs, steal our tax money, and disrupt our lives. They are people just like our friends, our relatives, our parents. They’re the people who flee from everything they’ve known, be it on plane or on foot or on boat, for something better, for the lives that so many of us have right now. It’s the combination of a few extreme individuals and a culture that’s developed against them that’s preventing that dream.
We, the students of MHS, have a unique perspective on the effect of refugees and immigrants, in that we embody it. We’re the testament that the journey, all those fearful moments of not knowing what’s coming, is worth it. Turning away from their plight is a discredit to the stories that brought this community to where it is in the first place.
It shouldn’t be about “them”: the stories they’re bringing are too similar to the ones we already know. The refugee story is shared by all of us, and it deserves a happy ending. We know, better than anyone.