I Forgot I Was a Refugee
But Donald Trump's presidency reminded me in a hurry.
A pro-refugee sign in Miami. Photo by Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket via Getty
I forgot that I was a refugee.
I have lived in the United States since I was three years old. This is where I grew up, went to school, and built a career and a life. I’m as American as I think the word American means.
But it was not until recently, as the political climate became heated and talk of limiting refugees and banning some altogether became a reality, that I was reminded I arrived in this country nearly 60 years ago as a refugee.
In 1961, my father, mother, and I fled Havana after the United States opened its doors to Cubans escaping Communism in the aftermath of the 1959 Cuban revolution. We left behind almost all of our possessions and boarded a plane for Miami with just one suitcase, all that was allowed for each family.
We were among the nearly 500,000 Cubans who entered the United States as refugees between 1959 and 1973 and benefited from humane policies like the Cuban Refugee Assistance Program (CRA), created by President John F. Kennedy through an executive order in 1961.
My memories of my first few years in the United States are spotty as I was so young at the time. We lived first with my mother’s sister in Bethesda, Maryland, and then moved through a series of homes in New York City—a basement apartment in Jamaica, Queens, and a tenement on 137th Street and Broadway, before eventually settling in Manhattan’s Chinatown.
Life for my parents in America was starkly different than in Cuba, where they had lived comfortably up until the revolution. My father ran a Chinese food market that his father had started and my mother was a homemaker. They often spoke of how they loved Cuba’s music, arts, food, and the warmth of its people. That all changed after Castro. In America they found themselves having to start their lives over with limited means and few friends and family.
My mother, who had come from a wealthy family in Hong Kong and had once planned to be a nurse, was only able to find work as a seamstress in a garment sweatshop. She worked 12-hour days five days a week. I remember going to the “factory” after school every day with other kids, playing underneath the machines and in the clothes carts as we waited for the end of our mothers’ long work days. The noise of the sewing machines was so loud that it was likely the cause of a hole in my mother’s eardrum discovered years later. At the end of each day, my mother would carry me up six flights of stairs to our apartment. Like the nearly 20,000 Chinese immigrants who worked in the Chinatown garment shops by 1980, she was in the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, which provided my family with crucial benefits.
While my mother toiled in the garment shops, my father worked long hours as a waiter in Chinese restaurants for our first nine years in New York City. I remember rarely seeing my father because he left before I got up and came home after I had gone to bed. With the help of a friend from Cuba, he eventually opened his own restaurant in Washington Heights in 1970. It was one of the first of the city’s Cuban-Chinese restaurants—think fried plantains with dumplings. This new cuisine was quite popular for some time in New York City thanks to the large Chinese community in Cuba that emigrated after Castro. Its success eventually led to my father opening a string of 11 restaurants around the country, including Washington DC, Boston, Miami, Raleigh, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Even then, I rarely saw him. Either he was working all day in New York or he was at one of his other restaurants for months at a time. My mother retired in 1983 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a radical mastectomy, and my father retired when he sold his business in 1997.
My parent’s endless hard work is what enabled me to go to college. Like most Asians, we were told that if we didn’t do well in school, we would never get ahead in America. I would be petrified if I got an A minus because it was an "Asian F." Neither of my parents went to college so that meant it was even more important for me to. I went to Parsons School of Design, which allowed me to embark on a long and successful career in the world of marketing and communications.
Ironically, for the past ten years I have worked at a museum that is dedicated to telling the story of American immigration through the personal accounts of immigrant families who lived in New York's Lower East Side. I reflect daily on the parallels the museum draws between immigrants who arrived here in the mid-19th century and my family’s personal experience of adjusting to a new culture and language and building a new life from virtually nothing. My parents often talked about what life would have been like if we never left Cuba. They never forgot the opportunity that America provided in a time of great need.
But what will happen to families like mine who face oppression today?
At a time when there are more displaced persons stranded in crisis zones around the world than ever before, the White House last month added additional barriers on refugees seeking to resettle in the United States. This comes on top of the Donald Trump's plan to reduce the number of refugees entering the country annually to 45,000, less than half of what had been proposed by the previous administration and the lowest level that any administration has proposed since 1980.
What will be the cost of this move? For one, stories like mine will become rarer and rarer. If the story of my family teaches us anything, it is that America is made stronger by welcoming refugees, not excluding them. By providing a safe haven and opportunity to people fleeing war, terrorism, oppression, and tyranny, America sends a powerful message to the world about the importance of human rights, a position that has made it a beacon of hope for people around the world for generations. A recent government study showed that refugees brought a $63 billion net benefit to the American economy between 2005 and 2014. They also add immeasurable diversity, innovation, and cultural richness to our country.
In some refugee camp somewhere in the world, there’s a family like mine dreaming of a better life in America. The United States can make it possible for another boy to forget the fear of fleeing his homeland and think of himself as only American. But America must open—not close—its doors if it is to do so.
David Eng is vice president of marketing and communications at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. Founded in 1988, the Tenement Museum tells the story of American immigration through the personal accounts of immigrant families, allowing visitors to encounter immigration as a vital force in shaping the nation’s culture, economy, and society. In 2016, the Tenement Museum welcomed more than 238,000 visitors, including 55,000 students.