Uyen, my now departed wife, was a refugee from war.
She arrived in this country pregnant and carrying little more than a swatch of sacred cloth given to her by a mystic in her homeland of Vietnam. The mystic told her that her life would get better once she fled.
I think about Uyen every time the current debate about refugees surfaces.
Not everyone embraced Uyen and the half-dozen other refugees sent to Helena, Montana, from Vietnam back in 1975. Then, and for the rest of her life, she encountered stark and ugly displays of resentment from fellow citizens. My own grandmother resented her at first. The Second Word War had filled my grandmother with a revulsion for all Asians.
When I announced that I wanted to marry Uyen, one of my friends, in a drunken fog, pulled me close and said: “You can do better than Vietnamese.”
Before I go on, know this: My grandmother learned to love Uyen as much as she loved her own. Uyen stopped by to see my grandmother every night after work once they settled into a peaceful relationship.
Only a few days before my grandmother died, Uyen confided in Grandmother that she had lost a valuable ring I had given her. Uyen was afraid to tell me. That very same day, I went to see grandmother in the nursing home where she was suffering from a broken hip. My grandmother told me about the ring. She then said the last words she ever spoke to me. “Mitch,” she said, “Uyen feels awful about the ring. Don’t you get mad or yell at her. She’s a good woman. You are lucky to have her.”
Uyen brushed aside all adversity. She worked two and three jobs at the same time. She built a life here from the ground up. She became a naturalized citizen and proudly voted in every election in which she was eligible to vote. She raised a citizen-daughter. She gave to charity. She proudly stood for The Star-Spangled Banner. She gave her love.
That’s what I think about when I hear the word “refugee.”
I wonder, how many Uyens are standing there outside the fences right now?
Sure, there might be some bad dudes trying to sneak in. I get that. But every apple tree has a few bad apples. Everywhere I look I see good and bad. Not just at the fences.
Are we defined by the good people we push away, or are we defined by the bad people we push away?
Or something in-between?