Since the beginning of 1988, a small number of refugees, who had been sponsored by their relatives living in the United States, France, and Australia, began to depart from Site 2 for another camp near Bangkok to have their medical exams done while waiting for the last leg of their journey to the real outside world. Every time I learned about people leaving Site 2 for a third country, I got very excited as it gave me hope that one day I would be one of those people leaving a refugee camp for good.
Some time in July 1988, we received a letter from the Red Cross telling us to prepare for an interview with the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok regarding our application for resettlement in the United States. Finally, the most awaited opportunity for us to seek redemption for our lives had arrived. I was so excited that for a couple of weeks leading to the interview date, I completely lost concentration on my school work. The excitement and hope of being able to go to the U.S.A. was too overwhelming for me to contain myself.
When the appointed time arrived for us to go to have our interview with the U.S. Embassy staff, we put on our best clothes and went to board a bus, which came to pick us up at the main entrance to Site 2 camp. There were several other families going for their interviews as well. We spent a few hours riding on the bus before it brought us to a center where the interviews were being conducted. After having our names registered, we were told to wait for our names to be called up which would mean that a consular officer was ready to see us. By about midday, we were called to meet with an American consular officer, a young man named Tony, for our interview. During the course of our interview, Tony asked my mother several questions regarding the relationship between her and my brother, Heang. Because my mother was semi-illiterate, Heang had attached a couple of photos with the sponsorship documents so that she could identify people in the photos to prove that we were related. In a somewhat confusing situation, my mother misidentified a child as being her grandchild. After seeing her making a mistake, I promptly interrupted the conversation and made the correction on her behalf. In the sponsoring document, I was listed as a minor and was probably not allowed to answer any questions. Hence, my interruption caused the interview to end rather abruptly. We didn’t know whether that short interview was good or bad for us; but I had a feeling that something had gone wrong. We returned to the reception area and waited for the rest of the day until about 3:00 p.m. when the bus came to pick us up and took us back to Site 2.
One week after our interview with the U.S. consular, I was called to the Red Cross office in Site 2 to be informed of our interview’s result. The Red Cross official showed me a list of names of the people who had gone to the interview with us at the U.S. consulate center. I looked for our family’s name on the list and found that it was crossed over by an ink pen. I asked the Red Cross official what that meant. The official explained to me that the names which had ink marks over them meant that they were being rejected by the U.S. Embassy. I was shocked to learn that the U.S. Embassy had rejected our application to be reunited with our relatives in America. The Red Cross official gave me two pages of documents; one had my mother’s name on it while the other had Buntha’s and my names on it. On the upper margin of my mother’s document, there were two hand-written words in quotation marks which said: “Fifth Column.” At that time, my English was not as proficient, and I didn’t know what the word “fifth column” meant. I tried looking it up in the dictionaries but there was no entry for the word “fifth column.” It took me about a week before I was able to find out the meaning of the word “fifth column” while skimming through an idiomatic booklet belonging to a friend of mine.
“Fifth Column” refers to people of dishonest character, which meant that we were being accused of dishonesty. It was a serious charge indeed for the desperate refugees like us whose virtue had been suspected. After learning of the meaning of the word “fifth column” and the implication it could have on our hope to resettle in the U.S.A., I became depressed and extremely upset at the lost opportunity. In a fit of frustration, I blamed my mother for making the blunder which cost us the opportunity to reunite with Heang and possibly our future. On top of that, we had risked our lives going through so many perils for nothing. As soon as I let go of my frustration, I realized that I had gone too far. But it was too late to take it back. Upon hearing my upsetting words, my poor mother sobbed bitterly, for she believed that her failure to answer questions posted by the U.S. Embassy’s staff correctly cost us dearly.
It took both, my mother and I, some time to recover from the sadness and madness that gripped our feelings. However, despite knowing that my mother had forgiven me for the irrational blame I placed upon her, I still had a tough time getting over the regret stemming from my unkind reaction toward her innocent mistake. The feeling of remorse keeps haunting me to this day whenever I think of that spiteful moment between child and mother.
My mother seemed to know that I had a legitimate reason to be upset at her failure to get everything right in our interview because she was, as head of the family, the only hope for us to get away from the wretched refugee camp. Thus, she neither reprimanded nor disciplined me for my uncharacteristic behavior. She just let me vent my frustration and accepted the fact that she was responsible for getting us into another quagmire.
In hindsight, it was understandable that I was so upset over what seemed to be a trivial issue. Because we had lived under dictatorial governments all our lives, we always accepted that whatever verdict the government or its agencies handed down upon us was final. Hence, the U.S. Embassy’s decision to reject our application for resettlement in the U.S.A. was a doom’s day for us. This defeatist belief coupled with my lack of knowledge on how the U.S. Government operated caused great grief for us, emotionally. I had not the vaguest idea that people in America could appeal official decisions concerning their application for a myriad of reasons. With a rather hopeless feeling, I wrote a letter to my brother, Heang, informing him of our failure to pass the interview for resettlement in the U.S.A. I told him of the possible causes of our failure and the “fifth column” remark being branded upon us by the U.S. Embassy.
As our sponsor, Heang had also received a letter from the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok informing him of the result of our interview. But he was not told all the details. So after receiving my letter, Heang set about filing an appeal for our case to be reconsidered. The fact that Heang came to the U.S. as someone else’s child, which was a false pretense, convincing the Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS), the predecessor of Bureau of Citizen and Immigration Services (BCIS), that we were truly related as siblings, and parent and children, needed a lot of proof. Thus, to ensure that we wouldn’t face another debacle, Heang resorted to the ultimate procedure to legitimize his claim, once and for all, by having our DNA tested, if the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok needed the hard proof. In the late 1980s, DNA testing wasn’t as widely use as it is nowadays. But Heang had enlisted the help of his employer who had a friend working in medical field in Bangkok to help facilitate the process.
Having all supporting documents in hands, Heang went to meet with a local INS official in Minnesota to appeal our case. He told me later that he spent more than an hour arguing our case before the INS official. At the end, INS agreed to let us immigrate to the U.S. on condition that we would be subjected to DNA testing if the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok deemed necessary. Afterward, Heang sent me the INS’s approval letter and informed us to wait for another round of interview with the U.S. Embassy.
By late September 1988, those who had been interviewed and accepted by the U.S. Embassy were informed by the Red Cross that they would be moving to a transit camp called Phanat Nikum to await their departure for the United States. The news brought sadness to me again, for I was not sure when or if the U.S. Embassy would ever call us for another interview. Just as I was falling into another depressed state, a friend of mine, Borath, who worked at the Red Cross office in Site 2, came to see me with the greatest news I longed to hear all those years living in the refugee camps. The U.S. Embassy had accepted us for resettlement in the United States. Borath handed me the appeal petition Heang had submitted to the INS office in Minnesota and the letter of acceptance issued by the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok. He told me that we had only two days left (actually a day and a half, given the fact that I was informed about our departure at about two p.m.) to get ready for departure to Phanat Nikum camp along with the other families. Apparently, the U.S. Embassy decided to give us a break by adding our names to the list of people who would depart for Phanat Nikum without bothering to interview us again. On the top margin of the appeal petition, I found yet another hand written remark which stated that: “Petitioner is willing to have blood test if you find it necessary.” Obviously, INS official in Minnesota had penned this remark on the appeal form before sending it to the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok.
(To be Continued)