Y-Dang Troeung, Hong Kong

“Never a Last Refugee”

My parents named me after camp Khao I-Dang, the refugee camp where I was born. They did so to remember their survival, and those international aid workers who cared for them after an improbable escape from the labor camps in Cambodia, across the landmine-riddled jungle, to the border of Thailand. As difficult and confusion-inducing as my name is, I wonder now how my life would have turned out, had they had named me “Goderich” after the small Canadian town where a kind group of sponsors first pooled their resources to bring us to Canada. Or if they had named me “Trudeau,” after the man who held me as an infant when my family first arrived in Canada, the man who is the centerpiece of my family’s postcard-perfect photograph commemorating our arrival.

I think of this picture often. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau welcoming my family to Canada at a ceremonial tea party on Parliament Hill. Why were we chosen, why were we given prestige for this photo? My family was not just any refugee family Canada had taken in. Arriving on December 3, 1980, we were designated the last, the “final” Southeast Asian refugees admitted under the special government program. But of course there was ongoing need, ongoing suffering. The war in Cambodia continued for another 18 years, yet we were the last. And as the last, we were to symbolize something more than just gratitude. We were proof that Canada had fulfilled its quota, had checked “saved refugee” off the good karma list. We were to be the symbol that Canada had done what it was charged to do, and needn’t be asked to do more.

The scholar Sara Ahmed speaks of the “Happiness Duty” of the migrant, which means “telling a certain story about your arrival as good, or the good of your arrival.” With my family living in poverty, and haunted by the knowledge of those left behind, I had difficulty performing this duty. I remember re-living my family’s experience as a child. I remember the words thrown my way. “Genocide” was not an accurate definition of what happened, I was told. “Death” was too heavy for a child to say. But I could say “tragedy.” I could talk about how terrible war was. War in the abstract, as if what happened to us was an abstract thing.

The recent photo of a deceased Syrian refugee child has gone viral, it has motivated movements and pushed demands for the migrant crisis in Europe to be met not with suspicion and refusal, but with compassion and care. The global moral eruption that has been stirred by the circulation of one photograph is a feature that those who suffered from the Pol Pot regime did not have. There were so few foreign witnesses to the atrocities, and little to no photographs emerged from that time. Instead, to remember the genocide we have numbers. Figures of the deceased, and mere figures refuse to inspire the same collective mourning.

Last year was the greatest refugee crisis in European history. This year, we have far surpassed last year’s numbers. Like in 1979, for so long all we gazed upon were these figures, some that grip the imagination by their sheer volume, yet each number is a story, a mourning, a loss. All the while, to remember losses that Cambodians endured all I had were the numbers people tossed. The counting of every breath of life, when it stopped, when it ended.

If we allow it, there is another number that can grip our imaginations. 10,000, the number of Syrian migrants that Canada promised to secure in January 2015, 8998 of which it has so far failed to meet. I would not be here had Canada not met its goal of 60,000 Southeast Asian refugees in 1980. I would not be here without compassion. That of Canadian citizens who petitioned the government to do more about the refugee crisis, who marched in the streets of Toronto in 1979 in support of Operation Lifeline, who set up a community fund to help my family buy food during our first few months in Canada. My history is proof that there is compassion and love. Now we are meant to de-prioritize compassion. We are meant to put love on hold, because we showed it to others in the past, because it burdens us in the present. But the good of the past does not permit the indifference to the now. The Canada that I believe in is a Canada where there is never a last refugee.

Y-Dang Troeung lived in Canada from 1980-2012. She is now an Assistant Professor of English at City University of Hong Kong.

Chinese version available at: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1tdwHPdSrE_6lfTpjV6Cgavqf6_5198DeQt1nWWQqC_g/edit?usp=sharing

Linked article: “Snow Looks Nice to Asian Refugees”, The Montreal Gazette, Dec 4, 1980.


26 thoughts on “Y-Dang Troeung, Hong Kong

  1. Pingback: Alumna speaks on her experience as an asylum seeker |

  2. Pingback: The consequence of compassion | tommarter

  3. Thank you for sharing such a story mixed story of blessings and beaucratic indifference to the lives the numbers represent.

    If you don’t mind my asking, did you move to Hong Kong to be closer to a prosperous culture that looks like you, or to escape the status of “showpiece” in a whitebread, posssibly Xenophobic adopted country?

    There are such nuances of hope and loss within your tale, that I’d love to learn more about your tale.

    Thank you for writing such a timely piece. I hope you don’t mind my reposting it and promoting it on my blog.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Thank you for your insight into the reality of the refugee crisis. The moral crisis goes beyond words, but your words regarding your experience have reminded me of the tragedy the world faces due to genocide. Unfortunately, western nations such as Canada, USA, and Europe will soon lack the political will to continue their support of allowing refugees to immigrate to the West due to the inevitable “backlash” of racist right wing extremism. However, your words have had an impact on concerned citizens who live in the West. Eliminating racism, genocide, and war is a monumental task that may not be possible, but writing about the effects that coerce refugees to endure these circumstances will have a positive influence on changing public opinion regarding the refugee crisis around the world. Thank you for your insight into the refugee crisis. David Cowan

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Reblogged this on Life is But This and commented:
    Thank you, Y-Dang,

    Though Canada said ‘So many and no more’, at least the Canadians don’t treat Asylum Seekers as criminals and lock them up in a hostile environment off shore. Australians make it as hard as possible for them to seek safety here – their ‘Safe Haven’ visa application form has 39 pages, applicants must account for their occupation for the last 30 years, i.e. everyday in 30 years without a gap and the few successful applicants are then granted a visa for 5 years only, in case they get too comfortable. We try to be as cruel and hostile as possible to turn off anyone’s desire to seek shelter here. The government (its a “Liberal” government who are in fact conservatives; even their name is a lie”) might as well hire planes to spray messages across the sky, “GO AWAY, WE DON’T WANT YOU”. If you think Canadians lack compassion; Australians are inhumane. Their slogan at election was “Stop the Boats” and the majority of Australians supported it. You may accuse me of being unAustralian, but I voted against it. Our recently ousted Prime Minister, Tony Abbot, who has been replaced by another PM with exactly the same policy, boasted about his success of turning away Asylum Seekers in his final speech. The current PM Turnbull was quick to say that he won’t rock the boat, or he should say, he won’t sink it unless it’s full of asylum seekers.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. Pingback: Y-Dang Troeung, Hong Kong | entertainmentinside

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