When I was 10 and my family planned to move to the United States via Canada after fleeing from war in Vietnam, my hardest decision was which one of my two stuffed animals I would bring with me. My concerns were so different from those of my mother and father when they were forced to escape their homeland.
This past week, I’ve walked with 100 other women in a pilgrimage to see Pope Francis in Washington, D.C. and I’ve felt memories of things I haven’t lived but run in my blood. I’ve had my heart opened to feelings I thought my too hardened heart could no longer feel.
And that experience is the potential that Pope Francis’ message—along with those moments where we walk our prayers into action—hold for all of us. We can turn distrust into trust, cynicism into hope, and isolation into a connection to the broader human family.
When I was younger, frustrated with our isolated life in the United States, I would ask my parents why they left Vietnam and brought their family to the United States. My questions were the result of childhood curiosity and youthful naiveté. I knew nothing about the parts of themselves my parents had to kill off in order to abandon the land they were from. After talking to my aunt when I traveled to Vietnam for the first time at the age of 30, it became clearer why my parents seemed to be not whole while I was growing up. She explained, “For those who leave Vietnam during that time, everyone understood that we have to die to live.”
There was a void in information that I was seeking. Life in Texas was too distant to understand the bombs that dropped during dinner time in Vietnam, the death threats after the war, the year apart searching for each other in different refugee camps.
I was hungry to hear about the boat my mother was on that began to take on water and what the smugglers did to rescue the craft. To lighten the load, they flung the elderly and the babies overboard, the ones they said couldn’t work where they were headed anyway. They threw them all into the sea except for my normally squirmy two-year old brother, who sat stock still hidden behind the pillars of my mothers’ calves, which stood at the ready for any hand that even strayed to come near.
When similar images of Syrian refugees flooded our television screens in the past weeks it brought my parents back to those painful memories. Sitting with my parents, who have lived through too much and as a result sometimes seem colder and distant, I saw something in them, some set of feelings, for the first time. I saw my mother turn off the news and look out the window as if she were still watching something.
The crisis we’ve witnessed has forced our hearts to open just as the pope calls us to open our homes to refugees. By the time it made headlines I had already decided to be part of the 100 mile pilgrimage that set off from a Pennsylvania detention center last Tuesday to echo the pope’s message of dignity for migrants. But now the reason for our journey has taken on more urgency.
We took off walking in hopes that our stories may humanize what’s been such a politicized issue for the rest of the country. With our stories, we hoped that people would see a mirror of who they are. Even though our experiences can be different, there are ways we can find common ground.
In town after town, we found that common ground as people of every stripe opened their doors to us. Yet what I’ve discovered is that the most powerful transformation our pilgrimage ignited has been inside myself.
Whatever I have inside that made me decide to stay in the United States instead of let the anti-immigrant sentiment drive me out, like it did some of my family, I have rediscovered it. Whatever faith carried my parents across borders and oceans to make sure that I could grow up in safety, I am reconnected to it.
I no longer just see the hardship of our story but also the deep resilience of my family. Like the church at its best, we are capable of making anything possible when we have love as our foundation. This is what Pope Francis reminds us of. It is what our pilgrimage has taught me. We are only hopeless when we are alone. And none of God’s children are ever alone. There’s always someone ready to walk beside us. We just have to take the first step.
Monique Nguyen is the Executive Director of Matahari and a participant in the #100women100miles pilgrimage to see Pope Francis in Washington, D.C.