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Immigrant Heritage Month - June 2018

To celebrate National Immigrant Heritage Month, youth interns from Monsoon Asians & Pacific Islanders in Solidarity wrote their families' personal immigration stories and submitted them to the Iowa Department of Human Rights to share as part of our #IowasImmigrants series. We share these stories with you in celebration of the diversity of all of the wonderful people who make Iowa the place we call home.

Laos

My parents are both refugees.

When I was younger, it was never apparent to me that they had different struggles than me; REAL fight-or-die struggles that I would never have to experience. These struggles came from their migration to America. The way I perceive their journeys to America is through a different lens than them. I see my dad's story as the physical journey, the struggle of escaping. I see my mom's story as the mental journey, the struggle of fitting in. As a constant reminder of my privilege, my parents get a kick out of telling me, "In Laos, they would slap you if you did that," and other angrily spouted phrases.

My dad crossed the Mekong River into Thailand with his family to escape war. They only brought their most precious belongings with them. In the middle of the night, a hired guide led them through heavy forestation toward the river. Rain poured so hard that vision was limited to directly in front of them, and the ground became so muddy they eventually would lose their shoes--but they had to keep going. When they got to the river, they traveled by small boat. It was so small they had to leave their belongings behind or toss them into the river because the boat would be too heavy. The river was guarded by men with guns who would shoot immediately if they were spotted, so they had to be silent in the pitch black darkness. While my dad loves to tell this story heavily animated, I respect him for the sacrifices that he endured.

My mother talks more often about her childhood, and how hard it was growing up extremely independent with little-to-no resources. Since junior high, she would have to walk to school in every kind of weather condition. She didn't have gloves or protective clothing, so every day she would arrive to school nearly frostbitten; her hands and face welched-up, swollen. Some days it was so bad she thought that she would die in the cold on the way to school. One day while walking home, she was bitten by a dog who was chasing her, but her legs were so numb she didn' t feel the bite. She didn' t notice the bite until later when she found blood on her leg. She never went to the doctor, the dentist, or any health care provider growing up, so she never got the bite checked out. She still has the scar today to remind her of her childhood struggles.

My mom has always been my example for hard work. After high school, she worked three jobs, including 20-hours on the weekend , to push together just enough money to get by. She depended on her cousin to give her rides to work, and even paid them gas money for it.

I used to be ashamed of being different, but now I am thankful. My dad drives a big white work van with a ladder on it, and before I was able to drive, he had to pick me up in it. Out of embarrassment, I would always ask him to pick me up later so the other kids wouldn't see it. It wasn't until after I began driving that I realized how much my parents accommodated their crazy work schedules and lives to prioritize me. Even when I started driving, I still needed rides on special occasions when my car wouldn't drive through certain conditions, and my parents were always there.

Because of what my parents have done for me, I constantly check my privileges. I am eternally thankful for the lessons they teach me while providing me with the opportunities they never got to experience.

Somalia

My parents were both born and raised in Mogadishu, Somalia. After having two children, they decided that Somali was not the best place to raise children, as war was breaking out. With the help of my uncle, they got a Visa that allowed them to migrate to Cairo, Egypt. After a long and rigorous trip, my family finally settled down. Immediately, they decided that they would start the process to immigrate to America.

My parents believed there would be greater opportunities for us in America. They had to get help from the United Nations (UN), and we would be coming to America as refugees. During this long process, my family had to live and provide for themselves.

There weren't any camps available for us to stay at. The only help we were receiving was from my uncle who was already in America, and the UN who was giving us $120 every two months. After a long four and a half years, my family was finally able to come to America. My parents were now leaving the only continent they've ever known. According to my parents, the voyage to America was very tough, with four children by their sides, it was a long and painful journey. Soon after settling in America, my siblings and I adapted quickly as we were all fairly young. My parents were able to find jobs and worked hard in order to build a wonderful life for us. 14 years later, I am beyond grateful for all my parents sacrificed so that my siblings and I could have the opportunities that we have now.

Vietnam

After the Vietnam War, if men did not want to be drafted into the military, they had to pay a monthly fine. When my dad could no longer afford to pay that fine, he asked my mom if she would escape Vietnam to the United States with him. At the time, my mom was working as a midwife, and my dad was doing odd jobs he could pick up. In 1987, my mom sold a few pieces of gold to pay the price for escaping, and subsequently, my mom, her older sister, and my dad found themselves out on a small, crowded fishing boat out on the Pacific Ocean for four days and four nights. My parents were both twenty-four years old. My mom left in the middle of the night without telling her own mother that she was leaving, with the fear that her mom would stop her due to the dangerous circumstances. She doesn't recall much about her trip on the ocean-­ just that it was dark and cramped. Their escape to the United States, as they soon found out, would be much longer than they anticipated.

My parents and aunt spent six months in the Philippines and Indonesia to work on their English before being sponsored to relocate to the United States where my grandma's sister resided. There, they lived in large, crowded corners, attended English classes, and prayed for safety every day.

A year later, in the dead of winter, they were transported to the United States, specifically California. They didn't stay in California long, however, as my grandma's sister lived in Des Moines, Iowa. After the move to Des Moines, they lived with my grandma's sister, her husband, and three children--my mom's cousins--in a small home on the south side of Des Moines near South Union Elementary School. My parents valued education, enrolling themselves into DMACC and later transferring to Iowa State University. My mom, who was a midwife back in Vietnam, was heartbroken after coming to the U.S. and learning that because of her limited English, there was no way she could study and return to the health career she was so passionate about. She decided that she would have to pick a path that she could understand and learn quickly--the universal language of numbers. My parents both majored in computer science, my mom minored in mathematics.

My parents are a living proof to my brother and me that hard work and education is powerful. That there will always be people trying to hold you back.  Racism definitely exists in the workplace, but most importantly, they're a reminder that family is important. Every day I am honored and blessed to be able to be able to have the Vietnamese culture as an integral part of my life.

Laos

When Dad was 13, he ran away in the middle of the night from his hometown of Vientiane, Laos. He swam across the Mekong River with a blown up plastic bag, crossed the borders of Laos into Thailand, and was immediately seized in the waters by Thai border patrol. He could've easily been shot and killed, but was instead thrown into a refugee camp on the Thailand borders in Nong Khai. He was alone at 13-years-old.  His biggest concern was survival.

When Mom was 13, she spent her days in a school room at Spring Hills Baptist Church frantically learning how to perfect her English. She sang Sunday school songs and practiced reading Bible verses aloud. Only two-years prior, the members of Spring Hills Baptist Church sponsored her family to migrate to the United States, and her family fled from Laos and relocated to Independence, MO. Mom was ambitious and wanted to talk to people, white people, without being made fun of.  Mom's biggest concern was oppression.

Note that this was the late 70s; a time when war saturated Southeast Asia with instability and violence. An estimated 200,000 Lao people were killed as a result of war, the majority of those killed being civilians. By 1977, Laos was in its second year as a Communist state and ten percent of the country's population fled in search of freedom. Though they didn't know each other then, both Mom and Dad's immigration stories began here.

At this time, a policy was in place that prevented refugees to relocate in large groups to any one community. Iowa's Governor Robert D. Ray heard of the refugees stuck on the Thailand/Laos border, and thought there was good reason to make an exception of the rule. He took the matter up with the President of the United States.  President Gerald R. Ford agreed, and Dad soon had a new place to call home; Des Moines, IA.

Mom met Dad at a bowling alley in the mid 1980s. They got married in 1985, and four children later, are still blazing through life together. My siblings and I had the privilege of watching our parents persevere through hard times. We were dirt poor growing up, but none of us ever knew it.  We just watched Mom and Dad work hard, day-in and day-out, to provide us with a roof over our head, clothes on our backs, and a home-cooked meal each night.  We had a house full of people and chaos and love, and that was everything we needed. In our early years, Dad was a cabinet maker and supported the family while mom worked toward her business degree at Grandview College. By the time she graduated, the four of us watched as she climbed up the corporate ladder in lightening speed. Together, through their example, they taught us children how to hustle when we were tired, be strong-willed when we felt weak, and to always have an open-mind when we didn't understand.

Out of their own self-determination and with a little help from others inside the US borders, Mom and Dad were able to flee war as teenagers. Their journey was met with a set of challenges that many will never have face in their lives-a new land, new rules, language barriers, racism, poverty, fear. Overcoming those challenges created a new world of opportunity for me, and I am eternally grateful for the grit and persistence they showed.

As a proud daughter of immigrants, I am deeply disturbed and devastated by the recent separation of families happening on our borders. As citizens of the United States, nearly all of us share the commonality that our families originated from somewhere else in the world. Regardless of where we physically live, as humans, we share the same fears, worries, hopes and dreams.  Our aspirations aren't any different than those being separated at the border.

June is Immigrant Heritage Month.  It is supposed to be a month to celebrate the diversity of the makeup of our country. Immigration is supposed to be our country's source of strength and pride in America. It is time we all reevaluate our own privilege and remind ourselves how our families got the freedom to live in this country. Our immigration stories include grit and perseverance, and I'm betting they also include a little help from someone  inside the borders. We are inside. It's time we check our hearts. Check our policies. Take a stance. Have a voice. And most importantly, have the courage to be that person to help others who are still writing their family's  immigration stories.

Picture of modern-day Laos