My Family's Refugee Story

Photo courtesy of Cathy Dang

An organizer reflects on her family’s history

My Family’s Refugee Story

By Cathy Dang

An organizer reflects on her family’s history

VT 668, the name of the boat where my parents just closed their eyes, took all their prayers to Buddha and Kuan Ying that they will make it to a refugee camp - ANY camp. VT 668 holds a million stories for us.

It holds the story of how my dad's parents begged him not to leave Vietnam, but he did because he wanted to see what other opportunities there could be for him, my mom, my older siblings and his future children (me). And my grandfather, whom I've never met, was so sad about him leaving that he died from distress within three years after my dad left. My grandmother - whom I also have never met - died soon after.

VT 668 is the story of how my mom and my uncle were captured in their first attempt to leave the country and went to jail for three months. They slept in small rooms and didn't get to eat much. My uncle was an avid smoker. The minute he was released, the first thing he did was smoke a cigarette. When the Communist Party decided to let everyone leave who wanted to, my mom and uncle were released in the morning and they attempted to leave again that same night. If that's not bravery, I don't know what is.

VT668 is the story of when my older siblings tried to make their first attempt with my dad on another boat. When they got on, there was a gaping hole and water flooded in. So they rushed off to get back to land, and when they got back to land and turned around, they watched the boat sink. The boat they could have all died on.

VT668 is the story of how my parents learned to live life in the U.S. with such boldness and taking sometimes too many risks. I am for taking risks, but the risks they took put my family sometimes into harm’s way. When you lose everything, though - your family, your belongings, your history - you think you can gain even more, so their mentality was…”why the fuck not?”

VT668 is the story of Long Nails, one of the first nail salons in NYC that started acrylic tips and double tips and where my parents became a trend setter starting an industry in NYC. It is where we built family with the customers and 60 workers, whom we are still in touch with today.

VT668 is the story of how my parents had to send money back to Vietnam to my aunts, uncles and cousins to buy homes and gain stability.

VT668 is the story of how kids of refugees hung out with each other, how we had our own culture and how our parents' "why the fuck not" mentality transferred to us and got us into a lot of trouble. It’s the story of how Viet youth were profiled as gang members and how some of us graduated high school and some of us didn’t.

VT668 is the story of how my sister met by brother-in-law and gave life to my precious niece and nephew. It is the story of how I met the love of my life, Ajahne, and our future and our children.

VT668 is the story of my complex understanding of my history - a family who has been in Vietnam for almost 100 years after migrating from famine in Guangzhou, China to now stories of being a transnational family.

VT668 is the story of how I am still trying to unravel my politics as a socialist and how I see that the Communist Party was trying to win independence after centuries of colonialism and how the country is now working towards socialism. I asked, why did my family leave? Why did we not stay to help re-build the country? And when I went to the War Remnants' Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, I am reminded of the multitude of atrocities the U.S. committed on Southeast Asia. And how afraid my parents must have been hearing bombs every night for decades and of the uncertainty of the most basic necessity such as food. Most people don't talk about the extreme famine the country faced during war because they couldn't import nor grow food in the fields that were being bombed and sprayed with agent orange.

VT668 is the story of how my parents returned home to Saigon in 2010, after not achieving their “American Dream,” losing everything they ever worked for here because capitalism will always have one up on you. But they are finding peace with their return home even though they don’t get to see their kids and grandkids as often as they would like.

And on World Refugee Days, I remember what my dad said. He said that we were lucky that we got sponsored and that there are so many countries today where this administration is causing disasters, rejecting their entry, deporting people and not letting people come to the U.S.

But really, it’s not just luck because people fought for us and fought for an end to the war and now we have the responsibility to fight for others.

For all the folks who've crossed deserts on foot, crossed borders, taken a raft or a boat, overstayed their visas, worked in the shadows to support their families, you are the bravest people. And for all the thousands of people who did not make it: you all are a reminder of our continued fight towards humanity.

Abolish borders. Abolish prisons. Rob ICE of its purpose.

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