Tell Me Your Story

by Max Ediger max e

Immigration is a big issue in America.  Like so many important issues being debated, there seems to be little dialogue; only very polarized opinions, criticisms and judgments.  This is unfortunate for all of us, not just for those facing deportation.  We need to listen calmly and deeply to all the different perspectives in order to find a just solution.  Most importantly we must be willing to listen to the stories of the immigrants themselves for each of them has a very important story to tell us.

The USA policy on immigration reaches all the way here to Cambodia.  In the late 1970s, as the Khmer Rouge regime fell, the US began to resettle large numbers of Cambodian refugees to the States.  They were scattered around the different States, but ultimately many migrated to areas with a climate more similar to Cambodia and where larger numbers of Khmer people were living.  Like so many of us, the people of Cambodia like to live in community, and they best found this among their own people.

Having survived life under the Khmer Rouge and a difficult life in the refugee camps, the resettled Khmers also found their new life extremely difficult.  Many were suffering from severe trauma inflicted by war and the Khmer Rouge, but often did not receive the help they needed.  The smallest children also suffered.  Their families, still suffering from the brutality of the Khmer Rouge and not having work that could provide sufficiently, were dealing with many psychological issues which were passed down to the children.  The children grew up in low income communities and were influenced by the youth culture in these areas.

At the same time, the resettled families were often not informed of the proper processes for getting citizenship.  Many children grew up without any identity papers.  This was no problem until they got into some kind of problem such as a charge of possessing drugs, dangerous driving or street fighting.  They would be sentenced to prison for a period, and upon release were often again arrested and deported back to Cambodia because they lacked proper citizenship papers – something that should have been provided to them by the authorities where they were first resettled.

These young people abruptly find themselves in Cambodia, a country they hardly know with a language they may not speak.  In some cases they have no idea in which part of the country they were born of if they even have any living relatives here.  A few come back with severe mental problems and cannot receive the help they need to adjust to a new life.

A local organization by the name of Returnee Integration Support Center (RISC) provides valuable service to these young people as they struggle with adapting to their new life.  Not all of them can do it.  Suicides are, unfortunately, too common.  RISC, with limited funds, provides counseling services, help in getting jobs or just a place to hang out when the going gets too difficult.

This situation reflects many injustices.  One of the most glaring of the injustices is that these young people and their families were resettled in the USA by the government but were not given the proper attention needed to find a new home and solid place to live.  That same government now deports the youth when they break a law, throwing them into a new situation far from their families, their wives and children and the American life they grew up in.

As Christians we are required to care for the homeless, the hungry and the distraught.  Jesus said that what we do to the least of the people around us, we do also to him.  This must become a part of the immigration dialogue.  It will require us to listen to the stories of the immigrants with love and compassion before passing any judgment on them.

Before we make assumptions about immigrants, or pass judgment on them, let us simply ask them, “Can you tell me your story?” Perhaps we will then discover that we are entertained by angels without knowing it. (Hebrews 13:  1-2)


3 thoughts on “Tell Me Your Story

  1. Thank you for posting about this heartbreaking topic. In the early 80’s I taught ESL to a group of Cambodians that had been brought here by a charity group. They were the most heartbreaking group I have ever taught (and I’ve been teaching ESL ever since). I was young then and only understood some of what they were going through. I can say that a lot of their problems came with them from their troubled country. However, a huge number of problems were also the result of the poor situation in which they found themselves here.

    I often wondered why people would give of their cast offs and worst items to people who are in real need. They had a dilapidated apartment that I would not dare to live in. They had several families living in the same apartment. That caused tremendous trouble for them. We, being ignorant of what truly had transpired in Cambodia, could not have imagined certain hostilities between families. In the conflict over there, who sided with who? So many things went on to create resentment between different groups. It really was not wise to expect them to live here without much help.

    Back then, I was kind of bewildered most of the time by their reactions. I was trying to teach them English, but most of the time they would not even talk to each other (and they wouldn’t explain to me why). Yet, the charity expected them to live together. I often think of them and pray for them to this day. I hope that they can find some measure of peace.

    Recently I read a book called “First They Killed My Father” by Loung Ung, which opened a tiny window of understanding about what happened in Cambodia in the 70’s. Thank you for posting on a topic that still makes me cry. Not that I enjoy crying but that group of students touched me in a way that no other group ever has. God help them and their children.

    • Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments. Everyone has a story but too often we don’t ask them, or if they do share we just can’t understand. Even living here in the center of that history I sometimes find myself thinking that people just need to be more trusting and open. It is really hard to see the trauma deep in their hearts which they are trying so hard to cover up. I just hope and pray that we can find ways to work which will help prevent such horror from happening to fellow sisters and brothers in the future.

  2. Sorry for one further reply. There is at least one success story that I know of personally. My daughter had a Cambodian friend in high school whose parents came here after the war. Her friend, Lina, is very smart, graduated from college in elementary education although she has not yet had the opportunity to use her degree because she got married immediately after college and now has two adorable children. My daughter was in her wedding party. She got married in a traditional Cambodian wedding. It was extremely interesting to me to see the pictures of the changes of clothing, hair and makeup as the day progressed! I was so happy to see the colorful culture of Cambodia after having seen some of their troubles.

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