I was appalled when President Trump signed, last Friday, the Executive Order titled “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States,” which temporarily denies entry for refugees and immigrants and, more specifically, bans those coming from seven Muslim-majority countries. My family and I were part of the second-wave of refugees from Southeast Asia in the early 1980s. After the Khmer Rouge regime fell on January 7, 1979, my family left Cambodia for the refugee camps in Thailand. It took us about three years to come to America. We crossed Cambodian jungles, avoided landmines, escaped Thai soldiers, lived in refugee camps in Thailand, with dust, canned foods, dirty water, the stench that came from no plumbing, and fear. We took tests, had our bodies scrutinized by medical professionals, were interviewed, to make sure we were clean and healthy before we could enter the United States. More than thirty five years later, I am now associate professor of English and director of Asian Studies at Union College, in Schenectady, NY. My daughter was born on American soil. I am an American, and I am also a refugee. I support an America that welcomes immigrants and refugees regardless of national origin.
Below is a poem that describes my family’s harrowing journey through the Cambodian jungles in search of safety and a better future.
(First published in the Journal of War, Literature, and the Arts)
The night sky lit like fireworks,
the air smells of burnt skin.
Mothers cry for children.
The boy clutches
his grandmother’s body.
pieces of someone—
a neighbor, a friend,
an aunt, maybe.
The boy asks,
“Where is Mother?”
The jungle is silent.
The earth stands still.
The boy awakens
from a nightmare.
The bomb, a firebird,
spreads its wings.
The boy is panting,
sweat dampens the earth.
Somewhere in this mist and fog,
outside the UN refugee camp,
a woman howls.
And the boy
thinks about his mother.
In our apartment, in Upstate New York,
we watch fireworks from our living room window.
The college where we teach is celebrating—
aging alumni and retired professors
gather under the boom.
I sit back on the futon
trying to rest, eyes closed, sweating.
My fiancée looks out the window,
“There’s something about fireworks,”
she says to me. “Something
about them that appeals to everyone.”
Bunkong Tuon teaches literature and writing at Union College, in Schenectady, NY. He is the author of the full-length poetry collection, Gruel (NYQ Books, 2015). His second poetry book, And So I Was Blessed, which examines his experiences leading a semester abroad in Viet Nam, is forthcoming.