In the two weeks since he was sworn in, President Donald Trump has wasted no time in signing executive order after executive order to make good on his campaign promises.
Those orders have ranged from a federal hiring freeze, to the building of the now-infamous wall along the American-Mexican border.
As concerning as these orders have been, it was his latest executive order, which bans travel from seven Muslim-majority countries for three months and suspends all refugee admissions for four months, that led to demonstrations throughout the country.
To show their support for immigrants from these countries, protesters on Saturday converged at airports around the country — including at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. They held up signs with sentiments such as, “Refugees welcome” and “Let them in!”
On Sunday, a rally was held at Westlake Park in Seattle in support of Muslims, immigrants and refugees.
There are many reasons this executive order has many people concerned: There are questions about whether the immigration ban is unconstitutional or even if it is legal.
But for me, Trump’s Muslim ban struck a cord with me on a human level.
Because not only am I a daughter of immigrants, I am a daughter of refugees.
On April 17, 1975, the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh — where my parents and their two children were living at the time — fell to the Khmer Rouge. That day, my father went to work at the air base as a member of the Khmer Air Force, like any other day, only to learn he couldn’t return home. With no other choice, he and others fled the country for U-Tapao Royal Thai Navy Airfield.
At this time, my mother stayed in Phnom Penh with my older sister and older brother, who were 2 years and 7 months old at the time, respectively. Within a few days, everyone was forced to leave the city.
Neither of my parents knew what had happened to the other or even if they were alive.
They spent a little more than six years apart as my father made his way to the United States, initially staying in a camp for Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees on the East Coast, before arriving in the Pacific Northwest in April 1976. My mother, on the other hand, worked in the Khmer Rouge labor camps and much of our family became separated — either by circumstance or death. Within a few years, my older sister and brother both died.
It was sheer luck and chance that my parents found each other — in a pre-Internet era — and my mother and other members of our family were able to come to the United States in 1981.
The thought that a ban like Trump’s could have kept them separated or had them sent back to a war-torn country is unfathomable. It’s possible my sister and I — who were born in 1983 and 1986, respectively — would not even exist if a policy like that was in place at the time.
Sadly, my family’s story is not unusual among Cambodian Americans. Almost everyone in our community has a version. I have relatives and friends who were either really young during the Khmer Rouge’s regime and spent their formative years in refugee camps along the Cambodian-Thai border or were actually born in the camps.
In our community, the word “refugee” is not just an abstract term that describes the images we see on the news. It’s not just a photo of a small boat overflowing with men, women and children as they flee Syria in hopes of a better future somewhere in Europe.
For us, the word “refugee” is something we have lived.
It’s my mother hiding spilled grains of rice in her shirt for fear that the Khmer Rouge would kill her. It’s my father dropping everything and getting on a plane to leave his homeland, with no way of reaching his wife and children.
For us, it’s a family tree with more than half of the branches coming to abrupt ends in the mid to late 1970s.
And while my sister and I are privileged enough to have been born here in the United States and did not live through the Killing Fields, we never forget about the sacrifices our parents and others have made and what they went through to provide a better life for our generation.
And that is exactly what the refugees and many of the immigrants trying to enter (or re-enter) the United States are seeking: a better future for themselves and their children.
So while Trump’s immigration ban may be dehumanizing by painting a group of people with the same, broad brush, it has also brought out the human side of many.
In addition to the demonstrations, other ways people have shown their support included immigration lawyers rushing to airports where people traveling from those seven countries — including green-card holders with permanent residency in this country — had been detained, setting up makeshift offices on terminal floors and offering their services, free of charge. Corporations such as Redmond-based Microsoft are offering legal advice and assistance to their employees who hail from the affected countries. The CEO of Airbnb, a homestay rental company with residential properties worldwide, has even offered free housing to those who have been affected by the immigration ban and are stranded in other countries.
One of the themes of Trump’s inauguration speech was the American people taking back their country from a government that has let them down. And in the two weeks since he took office, it looks like we have taken those words to heart and are doing just that.
It just may not be the way he imagined it.