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Jun 01 2016
by Alyssa Lam

What My Family's Immigration Story Taught Me

By Alyssa Lam - Jun 01 2016
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In today’s day and age, it is no surprise when you open up a news website or app to a headline about the war in the Middle East, whether it be a devastating story of destruction or a debate between politicians on whether or not refugees should be allowed opportunities to establish new lives on U.S. soil. The issue has become one of many controversial topics and has undoubtedly sparked many opposing opinions. However, above it all, I believe it is often overlooked that beneath the rubble and behind the words spoken, there are human beings who want another chance at life, an escape from an impending death.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, my parents were merely children, stuck in a world of chaos as the home they grew accustomed to became a place of danger. In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, Northern Vietnamese troops began to raid the villages and take everyone and everything in their path, and for many, the only choice was to flee or face their doom. Schools shut down, labor camps were established and families did not nearly have enough money to leave the country as they lived in poverty. In my dad’s case, he and his many brothers had to leave their parents and sisters behind as they embarked on a journey at sea, hidden on a small cargo boat en route to Thailand. While at sea, pirates invaded the ship, and my dad nearly died of dehydration when he drank sea water. It was a perilous endeavor that even ashore, did not end. 

Once in Thailand, he and his brothers were placed in refugee camps, where organizations of other countries would provide shelter and food for refugees. They stayed there for quite a time until they were finally sponsored by another organization here in the U.S. For my mother, most of her escape was on foot with her sister and parents. They traveled across Southeast Asia with little on their backs, and found their way to a refugee camp after networking their way through the small villages, from where they were then able to be sponsored as well.

When my parents arrived here in the U.S., my dad was 13 years old and my mom was 10 years old. They started out living in small apartments with their families and had to learn American customs. They did not know of automatic doors, toilets or washers and driers. For them, starting over truly felt like starting from scratch. They were able to go to school but had to go through ESL (English as a Second Language) classes. Nonetheless, they made a life for themselves and thrived through their hard work and dedication. They excelled in their studies, graduating near the top of their classes. My dad and his brothers went on to college, as did my mom and her siblings. They made enough money to open their own businesses and find good jobs. My dad and his brothers eventually sponsored my grandparents and one of my aunts. And today they are all proud citizens of the United States. 

Through their situations and life-long endeavors to adapt to the lifestyle here, they found each other, married and had me and my little sister. As a child of immigrant parents who both share individual yet similar stories of peril turning into success, I am inspired every day. I look back on my roots that are still kept very alive by the culture and traditions we embrace and I reflect often on how grateful I am to be here. My family history not only gives me something special to characterize myself with but has taught me amazing lessons. Growing up I learned to value education, close family relationships, sacrifice, discipline and diversity.

In the midst of everything going on in today's world with Syrian refugees who mirror many of the same paths my family went through, I wrote this article not only to open up perspectives but raise awareness about immigration and the "American Dream" in modern society. Everyone is entitled to their own beliefs concerning these topics, and there is much to take into account. However, in my personal opinion, I feel that much of the blame is placed on the people who ruin the reputations of groups as a whole, and one bad event prevents the innocent ones from having a chance at the American Dream. Many are quick to judge and discriminate against those of other ethnicities and some praise the idea of closing all borders. While this may be a preventative for any future attacks by not giving the victims of war a chance at life, they will have to continue fighting to stay alive. 

More than 11 million people have been killed or forced to flee their homes, and unfortunately a lot of them are children. While we enjoy the luxuries of being citizens of the U.S. and other well-developed countries, kids our age and younger have to worry at night whether or not they will wake up in the morning or when their next meal will be, all while having to run from violence and danger. It is hard to imagine the pain and suffering but we must bring the seriousness of the situation to light. The news places emphasis on the few people who acted to bring terror, but we must not forget that not all immigrants mean harm. In fact, when it comes down to it, the United States is made up of a melting pot of various cultures and people who came and assimilated at one point or another in our history.

Like my family and many others with a family history of immigration, today's immigrants are humans with fears, emotions, dreams and aspirations. The opportunity my parents had to achieve the seemingly impossible was granted at the time they came and my family is forever grateful for the aid we received; none of us, as well as many others, would not be here today without it. We would have never been able to go off and find the peace and prosperity my family longed for. I would never trade my family history for anything else in the world and it is my hope that the United States never stops embracing the ideas it was built on – opportunity, liberty, equality and freedom.

Lead Image Credit: John Mitchell via Flickr Creative Commons

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Alyssa Lam - Northeastern University

Alyssa Lam is a freshman at Northeastern University and one of Fresh U Northeastern's Junior Editor-in-Chiefs. She is undeclared; however she has interests in following a pre-medical track. In her free time, Alyssa likes to cook, work out, draw, write, hang out with friends, explore, and try new things. She prides herself on the fact she is short yet fierce. Find her on Instagram @lyssalam6.

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