My grandparents were refugees.
When the Korean War broke out in 1950, my paternal grandparents were living in what is now North Korea, north of the 38th parallel. As the war raged around them, they had to flee their homes. My dad told me that my grandmother got on one of the last U.S. military boats to leave her hometown, before the North Korean military (with its Chinese and Russian supporters) took over. My grandparents fled to the southern port city of Pusan, which is where they met, and where my dad was born. We still have family members in North Korea, although we haven’t seen them or talked to them in decades. We don’t even if know if they are still alive. My grandmother doesn’t really like to talk about it.
There’s been a lot of talk about refugees lately. It seems like a lot of people are afraid. Some people are afraid that they will never get to see family members who are trying to make it here from distant countries. Some people are afraid that they will not be able to continue their careers or their education because of travel bans. Others are afraid for the safety and security of their communities. Still others are afraid that the country is changing so quickly that there isn’t a place for them.
Truth be told, when word of the President’s executive order first came out, I felt distant from what was happening. When I think of a refugee from Syria, I think of someone who looks pretty different from myself. In all honesty, that difference makes compassion for the Syrian refugee less immediate and less quick. I confess that I don’t feel that tenderheartedness as readily as I would want. But then I think about my grandmother, my strong-hearted, deep rooted, monumentally loving halmoni (할머니). I think about her standing by the ocean, shivering in the cold, with not even enough time to think about all the family and friends she was leaving behind. I think about her, and I see her in the refugee from Syria.
After the election last November, I wrote that you can’t tell people what to feel. Some people felt happy, some felt outraged, some felt deeply disappointed. People will feel different ways. You can’t tell people that they shouldn’t feel afraid. Now, you can question the beliefs and concepts that underlie their feelings. You can question whether a temporary ban on refugees makes the country safer in a tangible way, or whether the current vetting process for refugees needs modification, or whether the President’s executive order should have undergone greater scrutiny and review.
But I hope, regardless of people’s policy views and preferences regarding immigration, national security, and humanitarian relief, that we can see ourselves and our loved ones in the people who are fleeing war, destruction, and devastation. I hope that we can be honest when compassion doesn’t come easily, and to earnestly desire that our hearts expand to embrace those who are different than us. If nothing else, that is my hope for myself.