Friday, August 22, 2014

On Privilege

Early days in Cambodia, on one of the monitoring trips
No one told me the early months of motherhood would be this difficult. I simply had no clue.  But we're adjusting to sleep deprivation and slowly a routine - a new normalcy - is emerging. And with that difficulty, there's also a lot of joy, which helps.

My mornings - just when M falls back asleep and the light is out - are precious moments for me, minutes when I am (relatively) awake and I can think about things other than feedings, the daycare search, minutes that I can waste on thoughts of autumn layers and flat boots, on the world that existed before motherhood.

This morning, I thought of the string of emails I received - actually, just as I was in labor!  They were from two families of Vietnamese Montagnard refugees I worked with in Bangkok.  Fleeing from religious persecution in Vietnam, they made their way to Cambodia first, then Thailand, where they would settle (illegally, as with all refugees in Thailand).  Theirs was a story that went back 7 years, with numerous rejections of refugee status by the UN, detention in Bangkok, release, and then the precarious life of a refugee not being able to lawfully live/work in their country of refuge.  Extortion by police is not uncommon. I had helped with a re-opening request to the UN (the third one, as their files had been closed), and the day of the email, they had finally received their refugee certificates.

It was such fantastic news.  I could imagine their faces and those of the children.

When I left Bangkok, there were others whose cases were still pending.  I didn't write about their stories then because it felt so close.  I still think about the Iranian man, detained in jail for political activities, tortured, raped. He was seeking an appeal. Did he ever get it?  I think often about the Muslim Pakistani woman forced to have an abortion by her tribe because she fell in love with and married a Christian.  What became of her?  And what of the woman from Cameroon, who fled her country with her daughter who faced genital mutilation?  The Palestinians displaced from their refugee camps in Syria, who bought a visa to Thailand not knowing how long it would take to be recognized as refugees and how arduous daily life could be in Thailand for a family waiting out resettlement?

One of the things that struck me in my travels was just how privileged I was to be an American citizen.  In Cambodia, on monitoring trips where arrest was possible, I knew that my passport would provide a level of protection. Same thing when I was in Burma on one of those frequent middle-of-the-night military checkpoints, where you're scooted off the bus and required to stand in line to be interrogated.  In the international work travel that is sure to follow this fall or winter, I will be working on human rights issues in difficult contexts, again with the protection of my passport. 

And, I'm aware this privilege came at no cost to me, really. My grandfather was the one who made the journey in the 1920s. He was alone, 16 years old. He toiled as a migrant worker until his retirement. Once a US citizen, he went back to the Philippines, where I was ultimately born.  For me, it was never a question of "if" but "when" I would move to the US to claim my citizenship.

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