BY NHIEN NGUYEN
When you meet Pee Dee Hswe, the father of one of the first Karen refugee families in Seattle, the first thing that strikes you is his warm, brilliant smile.
Behind this smile are years of living in fear of persecution from the Burmese military regime, surviving the squalor of a Thai refugee camp, and now, building a prosperous and safe life for his family in a foreign country.
The Hswes, and other current and future Karen refugees coming to Seattle, face major challenges in successfully living out the American dream. With only a handful of existing Karen immigrants in the area as their support network, they will struggle with language, housing and jobs. Their children, especially their adolescent youth, will struggle with conflicting social values, confused cultural identity and uneven acceptance among their peers.
The Karen newcomers remind us about the difficult challenges of arriving to this country as a refugee.
Unlike immigrants, refugees do not willingly leave their native country; they have been forced to abandon their homes, their families and their culture because of war or persecution based on religion, political ideology or ethnicity.
Oftentimes, a refugee’s primary wish is not to necessarily achieve the American dream but to someday be able to return to their homeland, back to the family and culture they were forced to leave behind.
As a daughter of refugee parents, I forget how fortunate I am to have a happy and fulfilled life, thanks to those around us who helped my family make due in this society.
But other children of refugee families are not so lucky, as shown by the tragic shooting of 17-year-old Samnang “Sam” Kok by a Southeast Asian classmate at Foss High School in Tacoma on Jan. 3.
The Kok tragedy ripples through the Southeast Asian community, whose experience as refugees in America continue to shape our existence in this country.
When an incident like this happens, our instinct is to blame and to find fault in what has or hasn’t been done. But ultimately, the forced abandonment of our native countries and the struggles of living in America have imprinted deep wounds that affect us, our children and potentially generations to come.
Behind the smiles of many refugees and children of refugees are buried feelings of pain, suffering and a general feeling of displacement. With the Kok case, which serves as a wake up call to families, parents and communities, we can hope to prevent future tragedies with positive solutions that include a deep understanding and compassion for the refugee experience.
Only then can healing begin, resulting in smiles that do not mask the pain from within but celebrate a life full of promise, hope and cultural pride. .