The horror a refugee leaves behind is never far away
The images of terrified civilians crowded together in a cargo hold or clinging to the wheels of a departing jet at the airport in Kabul cause him to relive the fear and anxiety he felt as a teenager in China at the end of the civil war between the Communist Party and the Nationalist government.
His memories of war and of being a refugee have come flooding back.
Even though my father fled China more than 70 years ago, his nightmares show me that refugees can never fully leave their country or the horror they experienced behind.
Recently, in the middle of the night, he suddenly called out in the dark: “What about the poor people of Afghanistan? What will happen to them?”
As caregiver to my father, I must often help calm his fears and anxieties, so I got up this night to check on him. “Don’t worry. Go back to sleep,” I said. “There’s nothing you can do right now.”
He replied, “I guess I shouldn’t watch news late at night.”
My father’s parents had been educated in the United States. Although they had returned to China in 1932 because they wanted to help rebuild their country after decades of war and colonization, they knew their ties to the U.S. would mean they’d be viewed as the enemy by the victorious Communists.
As a child, I witnessed how a sudden memory of war would set off my father’s post-traumatic stress. Sometimes the sound of drums would provoke him, or an image in a movie or television show. And he would be instantly transported to terrors he’d lived through as a child. He’d jump to his feet if he was watching a show with us. “This is stupid! This is wrong!” he’d shout.
And if I tried to ask what was wrong, he’d grow angry, annoyed at me for not understanding what seemed obvious to him, forgetting that I could not know what he was talking about. I was not yet born when his family suffered through the war.
Between the ages of 9 and 13, he had survived thousands of bombing raids in Chongqing, where his family had fled from their hometown of Nanjing, as they tried to keep one step ahead of the invading Japanese army.
While attending public schools in New Jersey and South Dakota, I hadn’t learned about the experience of the Chinese people during World War II, when China was allied with the U.S. and took the brunt of the Japanese military’s power so that the Allied forces could concentrate on the European front.
Neither my father nor his brothers nor my grandparents could bear to talk about this painful past. Not until college did I study this history and learn how as many as 20 million Chinese died during this era.
When my father was a teenager, his family debated whether to stay in China or flee. Both futures were unknowable and fraught with different kinds of perils.
In the end, his family fled from mainland China to the island of Taiwan. My father came to the U.S. as a college student and was able to find sponsors so his parents and two younger brothers could join him. But because the U.S. did not have diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China, they would be separated from the family they left behind for 30 years.
The trauma of war did not end for my father or his family even after they became refugees in the United States.
My grandparents lived the rest of their lives in relative poverty in a rent-controlled apartment in New York City. They had poor health after living through 12 years of constant warfare.
Still, they considered themselves lucky because they made it out. The rest of my grandmother’s family in China did not.
One of my grandmother’s aunts was an OB-GYN. Early on during the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s, the Red Guards beat her and smashed her hands under the hood of her car, breaking all her fingers so that she’d never be able to deliver another baby. My grandmother’s brothers, both doctors, were beaten terribly for being “Western educated.”
The trauma of family separation, of heartbreak, of post-traumatic stress continued through the generations into the present.
And so I am left trying to console my father, reassuring him that he is safe, even as he cries out in dismay at the plight of the Afghan people. We cope by trying to avoid the TV news and by donating to organizations helping refugees. The painful truth is that we both know the Afghan refugees’ journey to healing, which has just begun, will never really be over.