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Dublin: 12 °C Wednesday 21 August, 2019

Column: Refugees have complicated and messy lives, but my parents were shown compassion

The child of Cambodian parents fleeing Pol Pot’s regime, Phillina Sun says her parents’ cultural dislocation was eased by the welcome they found in the US. In response to assumptions about refugees, she offers a personal account of the ones she knows best – her mother and father.

Phillina Sun

TODAY I THOUGHT of my parents after reading about a legal challenge to the policy of direct provision here in Ireland.  In the past, I have always been baffled by some Irish comments concerning “asylum-seekers”. There is an antipathy to refugees here, a way of framing them that discounts their experiences and dismisses them as “benefits-seekers” and “job-takers”.

This negative attitude toward refugees in everyday Ireland is, I think, reflected and/or influenced by the detention and exclusion of refugees.  So, today, I felt compelled to list some observations of the refugees I know best, because I want to consider the trajectory of their lives, and the possible life-trajectories of other people like them.

A semblance of the middle-class American dream

In the mid-1970s, my parents arrived in the US as refugees from Cambodia, with assistance from the government and Christian groups.  With advice and loans from kin, they were able to start a doughnut shop in San Diego, where mom worked long hours every day of the week while dad worked in electronics in another city. After they sold the doughnut shop, mom took a night course and became an assembler of robots. Dad works at home, selling secondhand computer parts via the internet.

Through hard work, adaptation, and years of separation and heartbreak, my parents achieved a certain, albeit precarious, semblance of the middle-class American dream: the two-story house in a nice neighbourhood, a good education for the kids, second helpings at dinner, US bus tours for vacation, and life insurance as a psychological bulwark against the uncertainty of their children’s futures.

Culturally, my parents travel between worlds

Physically, my parents live in San Diego. Culturally, they travel between worlds.  They raised my brother and I, US citizens by birth, as Americans, even as my parents were not comfortable with what  being “American” might mean. What is “American” but a mix of improvised signs and gestures?  Mom watches soaps both American and Cambodian, and dad is an avid viewer of Chargers football games and Khmer karaoke videos. (Dad also listens to Spanish radio, which is telling of our proximity in San Diego, geographically and culturally, to Mexico). Mom and dad are comfortable in their improvised world of computer flea markets, Khmer-language Christian meetings, Hawaiian buffets, and seaside festivals.

Although my parents miss the Cambodia of their youth, they return only for brief trips, typified by family reunions and melancholy tours of a countryside forever altered by the depredations of frontier capitalism and de facto dictatorship. Not that they haven’t encountered hardships and hostility in the US.  Although their refugee past is not so urgent a memory for them, my parents are aware that, as immigrants, they are sometimes viewed as newcomers, no matter how long they’ve lived in the US.  There’s always a chance that someone might come up to them and yell, as in the past, “Go back to China!” Belonging, for my parents, is always contingent.

The state is no substitute for society

Nevertheless, my parents have the life they’ve improvised due to their initial treatment in the US  by certain parties who welcomed them. This care was encouraged, in part, by media attention on the plight of Cambodians during the Pol Pot years, which elicited the Christian aid that helped my parents and, with their kinship networks, enabled them to emerge from the limbo of refugee status. (How, I wonder, would their treatment differ now, in post-9/11 America, where that welcome is being retracted in a heightened anti-immigration culture?)

In Ireland, there is scant welcome for the refugees of the 21st century. The refugee or “applicant” is an “asylum-seeker” first, before s/he is a refugee, preempting the realities implied by the statement “I am a refugee”, realities which would otherwise require address. “Asylum” suggests the space and time of safety; the asylum-seeker is caught in an unsafe space and time. Direct provision further delays empathy by segregating the individual into grim, for-profit centres where all aspects of life are fully regimented by the state.

The state is no substitute for society, for the possibilities of community. With his or her life so completely circumscribed via direct provision, the individual has no or little cultural or social capital, consigned as an invisible non-person to a legal and existential purgatory.

The pain of their dislocation was eased by their welcome

What I know about my parents’ time as refugees is little, garnered from anecdotes, legal documents, and a couple of pictures, of children holding hands in a Thai refugee camp. They tell me bit by bit, and I piece their histories together, knowing that these accounts are not exact; some things are deliberately left forgotten. The limbo of the refugee camps was short, alluded to by a couple of photos buried in a box beneath other photos – of my brother and I as children, of visiting family, of trips to the sea – visual markers of survival and resilience in the aftermath of that refugee past.

I offer this account of the refugees I know best as a response to presuppositions about refugees and as a consideration of possible refugee trajectories.  This is not to suggest that every refugee, once welcomed, will eventually become a “model citizen”.  Complicated and messy, lives will not fit into neat, pre-set molds – nor should they.  But every human being deserves recognition of his or her rights and care, regardless of their circumstances and no matter where he or she is in the world.  With the pain of dislocation eased by their welcome, my parents could move beyond the trauma of that moment, free to improvise home and belonging.

Phillina Sun is a PhD scholar in visual culture at National University of Ireland, Galway.  Contact her at

Main photo shows Cambodian refugee children waiting for food aid in northwest of Phnom Penh, 9 January 1975. (AP Photo/Tea Kim Heang aka Moonface)

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Phillina Sun

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