Franklin Roosevelt once told Americans, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” but in the current refugee crisis there are very real things for Westerners to fear: terrorists posing as peaceful refugees, disaffected young men prone to radicalization, and entire cultures rapidly evolving in ways no one can foresee.
But Roosevelt left us an important reminder: Fear itself is something to be feared, because under its influence we sometimes act in shameful and regrettable ways.
I was born in South Vietnam, just six months after it fell to the communists in April, 1975. After four years living in poverty and near-starvation, my family of ten made the desperate decision to flee the devastation of postwar Vietnam in hopes of finding a better life in the West. In July, 1979 we joined the ranks of the legendary “boat people,” and put to sea in a broken-down fishing trawler.
To be fair, the current wave of Middle Eastern refugees is different from the wave that brought my family to America. The religions of Vietnam had no violent and radicalized factions. But in one important aspect we were just like the refugees of today.
Wherever we went, we were feared.
After three days at sea my family’s boat ran aground on the coast of Malaysia, and we were not welcome. Malaysia had already taken in tens of thousands of refugees, and they refused to accept more. They feared that we would upset their fragile economy, overwhelm their social services, or even become terrorists. My family was Chinese, and all Chinese were assumed to be communists; the last thing Malaysia wanted was another boatload of potential communist insurgents.
After two weeks of imprisonment on the beaches of Malaysia, my family was told that we were to be taken to a refugee camp on an island just offshore. Ninety-three of us were packed into a tiny, derelict fishing boat without food or water and towed for twenty straight hours back into the middle of the South China Sea. There, the Malaysian Navy cut the tow rope and left us to die.
To this day, no one knows for certain how many boat people perished at sea. At the time of our departure, the death rate was estimated at 50%; for every two refugees who attempted the crossing, only one survived. Still they kept coming, boat after boat, in hope of a warmer welcome and a better life.
Fear is a powerful but elusive emotion, like a storm cloud that passes to reveal a clear blue sky, leaving us to wonder where the thunder ever came from. The Malaysian economy recovered, their social services survived intact, and refugees didn’t become dangerous insurgents. But fear of those possibilities was enough to cause tens of thousands of refugee deaths, and to leave an eradicable black mark on that era of history.
After six days at sea my family was rescued by a ship belonging to a fledgling hunger relief organization known as World Vision. The president, a man named Stan Mooneyham, felt a personal burden for the boat people and decided to mount an independent effort to help in any way he could—despite the warnings of seven different governments to leave the problem alone. The Vietnamese refugee crisis was a political quagmire, a problem without a solution, and no one was willing to touch it—except for Stan Mooneyham. He bought himself a ship, loaded it with food and medical supplies, and began to sail the South China Sea in search of abandoned boats like ours.
My family eventually settled in Fort Smith, Arkansas, an Asian family adrift in a sea of white faces. Many of those faces feared us, because we seemed strange and different and the horrors of the Vietnam War were still fresh in their minds. They didn’t understand our strange language and culture; they thought we would steal jobs from deserving Americans, or end up as economic burdens on the welfare roll. The year that my family arrived in America, President Carter announced that the United States would double the number of refugees it accepted each month, and the New York Times conducted a poll to ask Americans if they approved of his decision.
Sixty-two percent said they did not.
In Vietnam, my father had been the COO of a multimillion-dollar rice milling empire. In America, his first job was fabricating fiberglass at minimum wage. My father didn’t take jobs away from deserving Americans; my father took jobs that most Americans would never consider, and he was grateful to have them. We lived our new lives in fear, as refugees always do—fear of humiliation, fear of making a mistake, fear that someone would someday tap us on the shoulder and say, “You can’t stay here. You have to go back.”
As I grew up in America, I came to realize that the most effective antidote for fear is not courage, but gratitude. Fear and gratitude are polar opposites. Fear is a haunting anticipation of loss—loss of safety, loss of comfort, loss of privilege. Because it focuses on loss, fear is self-protective and powerless; it lives in a world of what once was or might have been. But gratitude lives in a world of what is and what might be, and that makes gratitude powerful, positive, and most of all, generous. Fear withdraws to protect itself, but gratitude reaches out. The ultimate remedy for fear is to count the things you have, give thanks for them, and share them with others.
When I first arrived in America I could only think of what I had lost: my friends, my country, even my native tongue. But over time I came to realize that I had been given the opportunity to gain immeasurably more. I learned the English language, graduated valedictorian, and attended Harvard College and Harvard Medical School. In America I became a grateful man, and as my sense of gratitude increased, so did my desire to help others.
It would be foolish and naïve to suggest that Western nations today should simply open their borders and accept any and all refugees in a grand display of compassion. There are security issues that have be addressed, and vetting procedures that must be put in place. What we can do is recognize our fears and keep them in perspective, because fear casts a shadow larger than itself. To be fully human, and to be truly American, we have to stand up to our fears and refuse to be controlled by them.
Stan Mooneyham had no large-scale political solution to the refugee crisis of his day. He simply chose to see refugees as suffering human beings and decided to do what he could to help, and my family is alive today because of what he did. That was his legacy, and it’s a legacy we should all seek to pass on.