A Refugee’s Souvenir



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My aunt pictured here with my uncle during a family trip to Niagara Falls (Summer 1991)

Years ago, as a kid, I went down to Florida to see my family on my father’s side. Aunt Phanh, who was my favorite aunt & mother figure, always enjoyed a good laugh, and played with my brothers and cousins when we were all kids. For all her jolliness, she ran a tight ship, enforcing rules in her home to make sure we weren’t causing mischief. The tall bamboo cane was there in her presence, in case one of my more troublesome cousins decided to test her boundaries. One evening, she asked me to massage her back and apply lotion to her. As I open up the back of her shirt, I noticed that there was a distant brown scar across her back. I asked her, “what is that?” My aunt softly murmured, “they used to hit me.”


“Who did?”, I asked. She didn’t reply to me, so I decided not to go further. A few years later, my aunt would be stricken with illness, and her health began to deteriorate. One night, her son Shawn took me aside and quietly said, “I gotta tell you something about my mom. She’s tough. She’s had to be tough her whole life. If she didn’t, she wouldn’t be here.”


The scar came from her stay at a Thai refugee camp. She, along with her family escaped their homeland in the Khmer Krom (the land that was once a part of Cambodia, and now Vietnam) by boat due to the ongoing Vietnam War. Their communities, destroyed, desecrated, and offered little in the way of hope. Perhaps, just maybe, the ground that absorbed so much blood in their home, they can finally see a ground that breeds for the living.


The guards hovered over the camp site, and ordered the adults to be separated by gender, with the kids staying with their mothers. Any hint of disobedience or unfulfilled responsibility by one of the refugees would result in group punishment.


My cousin Shawn remembered one particular chilling moment. The guard hysterically yelled out, “Who did this?” pointing to a few grains of rice dropped on the floor. The ominous silence pervaded through the room. Heads hung low. The guard commanded the women to stand facing the wall. Then, the bamboo cane cracked through the backs of each woman. Some cried in pain, one fell to the floor. My aunt stood there, shaken and holding back tears. Her 3 kids all under the age of 10 had to witness their mother getting beaten. For weeks, they lived through the physical abuse, imprisonment, and being reminded that their existence was to be punished.


In the midst of living in refugee hell, their parents reminded themselves that if their journey for their family’s liberation could handle just one more long, traumatic, death-defying course, then maybe their children wouldn’t have to be buried as children.
As the family permanently settled in the US, the scar tissues that lie across my aunt’s back served as a souvenir of that refugee life. The tears, the fears, the restlessness of it all, are filled in the surface of that very scar.


All Rights Reserved by Randy Kim 2016









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