What Do Refugees Go Through? Take It From Someone Who Has Been There.

“We just thought that once we got out to the international water, there would be some people there waiting to rescue you."

Before our country gets behind a plan to ban refugees from entering the United States, it might be worth considering what those aspiring Americans go through on their way to safer shores. For CieCie Tuyet Nguyen, no imagination is needed. 

She was 13 years old during the fall of Saigon, an event that marked the end of the Vietnam War and the beginning of a life she never imagined for herself. The war cost her and her family everything, and displaced hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese citizens. Three years after north Vietnamese forces captured the capital of South Vietnam, at the age of 16, Nguyen was forced to flee her country.

Much like those fleeing violence in Syria today, Nguyen left her country on a boat, cautiously hopeful.

"We just thought that once we got out to the international water, there would be some people there waiting to rescue you," Nguyen said in an interview with A Plus. "I don't know how we thought that once you got out of Vietnam, you [would automatically] be rescued… 400,000 to 500,000 people drowned at sea."

In June, Nguyen published a book about her life as a Vietnam War survivor, titled Shock Peace. During a sit-down interview with A Plus, she spoke about what it's like to be a refugee, and discussed how she is applying the lessons of the past to today's refugee crisis. 


Courtesy CieCie Nguyen.

After she fled Vietnam, Nguyen became stranded in Malaysia at a refugee camp while she waited for the paperwork to move onto Australia. She was waiting for her sister, who had already made it to Australia, to help get her, her parents and her other siblings into the country. She has vivid memories of being on the coast and begging people for food and money, and subsequently being told to leave.

"If you're not a citizen, if you're not anybody, you are nothing," Nguyen said. "You are reduced down to nothingness; you have no pride to become anyone. I only had a few months there, but it stayed with me forever."

While she was at the refugee camp, Nguyen and her family would watch as boat after boat came in every day, full of people fleeing Vietnam. A month into their stay at the camp, boats began floating in half-empty. Women shared stories of pirates, armed fisherman who had tried attacking Nguyen and her family previously, but at the time were unarmed.

Now, though, they had tools to tow boats away and weapons to kill those on board. One woman Nguyen met was the lone survivor on a boat full of 50 men, women and children that had been left on an island with no food or water. They turned to cannibalism to survive. 

"I always wonder how she is now," Nguyen said. "The entire boat, her family, uncle, brothers, sisters, all gone."

The similarities between what Nguyen went through and what Syrians are going through today are striking. Not just the fact that many escaped by boat and fled to international waters in hope of rescue, losing thousands at sea, but the way they must live in restrictive camps in unfamiliar countries. Syrians are also now spending years in limbo while they wait for work permits or visas to enter a country. They are also fleeing a civil war. And, perhaps most tragically, many have also watched as foreign intervention only exacerbated their problems. 

Courtesy CieCie Nguyen.

Much like millions of modern-day refugees, Nguyen and her family came from a middle class background. Her parents lost their life savings and employment. Today, many of the refugees fleeing Syria are skilled workers, too — doctors, teachers, laborers, lawyers — who lived in houses and drove cars and had full-time jobs and wanted to send their children to the best schools, before their day-to-days were suddenly "reduced to nothing," as Nguyen put it.

"People looking from the outside looking in might think they want to leave — or call them 'economic refugees,'" Nguyen said. "If anyone could help it, they would not leave the country… no one would like to become a refugee. If they had a choice to be somebody else, they would." 

Despite her own experiences and the tragedy and hardship she witnessed firsthand, Nguyen recognizes something about her past:

"We were lucky," she said. "People are too skeptical about refugees today because of terrorism."

Young Syrian refugees arrive in Greece. Nicolas Economou / Shutterstock, Inc.

As Nguyen explained it, when she was a refugee, there wasn't a negative stereotype the way there is now. Today, refugees are often framed in ways that make them seem dangerous, like they are taking advantage of their new country or a lost cause. In the wake of the Paris and San Bernardino terrorist attacks, public support for accepting refugees plummeted in the U.S. In contrast, when she was trying to find safe harbor, Nguyen found that many of the people who had the ability to help did.

Eventually, after months spent in Malaysia, Nguyen joined her sister in Australia. There, too, she faced a common refugee experience: learning a new culture and a new language.

"There was still a sadness of getting there because you know you have to start all over again," Nguyen said. "We had enough money to have a decent shirt and decent pants, but didn't have enough money for shoes. So every one of us boarded the plane wearing [sandals]." 

Today, Nguyen works in Sydney as a pharmacist. She's the president of the Vietnamese Health Association in Australia and — as of this summer — a published author.

"It's still painful for me sometimes, some periods when I wrote the book I went home crying," she said. "The emotion was so strong that I could not do anything except go home and lie in bed. Many times I thought about giving up — how could I write a book in English, my second language?"

But she did. 

And while the book tells a unique story of a child forever changed by the Vietnam War, it's Nguyen's experience as a refugee that seems more relevant now than ever. Over the last few years, much has been made about how Americans and other countries can welcome refugees; A Plus even wrote about an organization that helps teach neighborhoods how to welcome refugees.

Nguyen's advice often focuses on what the refugees can do to ease their adjustment For many, the challenges of leavnig a life behind are just as great as the challenges of starting a new life. She made it clear that she hopes people become more accepting and understanding of the struggle that refugees are facing. 

Her number one piece of advice to people who are entering a new home?

"Don't close up," she said. "To understand each other, I think, is to open up.  The more you tell people what you think, how you think, how you eat, how you see black as grey, the better. If we don't understand, if we don't know, of course we stay away… everyone is the same, every culture, every country, is exactly the same." 

Cover image via  Melih Cevdet Teksen / Shutterstock, Inc.


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