Life's Biggest Lemon

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Life's Biggest Lemon

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By: Nguyen-Vu Nguyen

Date: March 1, 1994

Source: Nguyen, Nguyen-Vu. "Life's Biggest Lemon." Refugee Magazine, (March 1, 1994).

About the Author: The United Nations is an international mediation and aid agency. Its various divisions help mediate political disputes, police militarily unstable regions, and work to improve living conditions throughout the world. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees works to protect the rights of refugees and to help them reach safety in another country. Nguyen-Vu Nguyen's family were refugees from Vietnam who immigrated to the United States in the 1980's.


Each year, several million people throughout the world are forced to relocate unexpectedly. In some cases, they move because of war or civil unrest, while in others they are driven out by famine or the risk of political persecution. These involuntary travelers are known as refugees. In 1998, the United Nations estimated refugee numbers worldwide at approximately thirteen million.

Because of its friendly political climate and strong economy, the United States is a desirable destination for many refugees. Both the United Nations and the United States government believe that the best solution for most refugees is a safe return to their country of origin; however, in many situations such a return is either politically impossible or would subject the refugee to extreme danger. In these cases, refugees may apply to be admitted to the United States. The U.S. Department of State sets quotas for the number of refugees admitted each year; in 2005, the United States admitted a total of 70,000 refugees, with the total divided among six geographic regions worldwide.

Refugees generally find themselves ripped from anything familiar and thrust into a strange new environment. While the details of each refugee's story vary, most share a common core of experiences. The Center for Victims of Torture in Minneapolis conducted a study of refugee experiences and found that each stage of the refugee experience involves a unique set of stressors, particularly for children and teens.

On the most basic level, refugees lose their material possessions such as homes and land; in many cases, they also lose their social status, economic security, and extended family connections. For children, the loss of familiar surroundings and the supporting community can be a terrifying experience, particularly since such changes are unexpected and difficult for children to understand.

The journey toward safety is often difficult for refugees, with many stops along the way and a great deal of uncertainty. In many cases, refugees are powerless, forced to depend on national and international agencies for food and shelter. Health problems are common, and children and teens are again subjected to extreme stress. Many refugee children are exposed to malnutrition, assault, and death during their flight, and some are separated from their parents. Children are frequently aware of stress among the adults around them but are often not told of the details.

After arriving at a new home, refugee families still face struggles. In many cases, refugees arrive with few resources, little money, and no useful job skills. Housing in their new country may be in high crime areas, and an inability to communicate often hampers efforts to find employment. New housing arrangements may force multiple families or generations to co-habit, further disrupting previously established relationships. Discrimination is also a problem for many refugees as they try to retain aspects of their old culture while also assimilating into their new surroundings.

Although the challenges facing refugees are daunting, many find opportunities to excel; in many cases, the children of refugee parents are able to quickly settle into their new surroundings and begin new lives. They also frequently play a key role in helping their parents connect to the surrounding culture.


In the American South, where my Vietnamese family made our second home, there is a saying: "If life throws you a lemon, make lemonade." That lemon, for us, is our refugee experience. And we have made the largest glass of lemonade from it. July 1981. My father completed his sixth visit to the local government's office. Since his release from the concentration camp, he had gone there monthly to inform the Vietnamese authorities about the details of his life. That weekend, my family packed a change of clothes for what I was told would be "a long journey".

A nine-day voyage on a wooden boat brought us to Malaysia. My family waited at the camp for a year before we were flown to the United States. Like many refugees, we restarted life in America with several disadvantages. We had no relatives here. Everything that was familiar to us was left behind in Viet Nam. Our English was not good enough to tell people at the local Thrift Store that we needed shoes, and the prospect for employment was not at all certain.

After the refugee experience, the task of recreating meaning and purpose in life was the greatest challenge and perhaps most valuable achievement for my family. During those years, waking up and facing life each day were acts of courage for my parents. Life was not prefabricated. One had the option of hiding inside the apartment and drowning under the demands of the new environment. The alternative was to stand up and face life with the ferocity of a hungry canine when it sees its first prey. How much strength and courage my parents have had in order to continue life under such circumstances!

American society is completely foreign to a refugee. It differs from his native culture in language, customs and attitudes. For a person without the support of a family, life can be intolerable. Fortunately, my family has been the source of comfort and protection for all of us ever since we escaped Viet Nam. My parents have always absorbed the hardest financial and emotional shocks. For many summers, my father would take on a second job to earn extra money so that his children could attend camps, take music lessons or join the Little League baseball teams. We never had to interrupt our education to work and support the family. My parents took this burden upon themselves.

In addition, they have acted as a repository of Vietnamese culture for us. As a young refugee looks around, he sees the ubiquitous American culture, but often his own culture is rapidly disappearing. My siblings and I in return have served as our parents' liaison to the larger society. It is through us that they reached out and made friends with other Americans. Twelve years have passed since my family first became refugees. Today, we no longer have to lift crates at warehouses on night shift. There is no more washing dishes or waiting tables at ethnic restaurants. Instead of survival strategies, we now discuss Christian ethics and social issues at our dinner table. Many of my parents' dreams have been fulfilled.

Through the church and work places, my parents have found ways to become contributing members to the American society that embraced them. My father founded a Boy Scouts of America unit for Vietnamese youths in our city. He also teaches Bible classes in the church. My mother, likewise, is socially engaged in her work to assist immigrant students from Mexico, Viet Nam, Somalia, Haiti and Bosnia. She also worked at World Relief to help refugees adjust to their new lives in the United States.

As for my siblings, when asked, "How have your refugee experiences affected your outlook on life and your future aspirations?" my 19-year-old sister thoughtfully responded: "It made me more sympathetic to the needs of people who have difficulties defining their places in society." She taught summer programs to introduce art into the lives of Vietnamese and African American youths. She presently studies English at Amherst College and plans to become a physician specializing in tropical medicine.

My brother is 20 years old and studies biology at Presbyterian College. He finds that our family's refugee experience has deepened his understanding of human suffering. "A homeless man in the street of Boston lacks not only money," he told me. "You often see people giving spare change to these poor folks, but they are afraid to stop and talk." Having once been a refugee, he knows what it is like in the periphery of human society. "This homeless man also needs human companionship, so I stop and talk to him." My brother has also been involved with former President Jimmy Carter's project to build homes for low-income families in urban areas. He hopes to become a missionary doctor.

I, too, realize that the refugee experience has carved deep into my physical and emotional being. To recapitulate, it is the biggest lemon that life has ever thrown me, but I have also made the largest lemonade for myself. Hardships give birth to endurance, and suffering yields greater compassion. Every time I think that any task I have here at Harvard is unmanageable, I am reminded that nothing is as difficult as picking up the pieces of one's life.

Like my father, I see that the refugee experience is only temporary. For our family it lasted a year, but its impact is felt for a lifetime.


Whereas voluntary immigration is often undertaken following years of planning and preparation, refugees frequently arrive with little more than their clothing and a few personal effects. For many refugee families, the trauma of being thrown into an unfamiliar setting tends to draw them closer to one another in the earliest days following their arrival, while assimilation difficulties may lead to generational rifts in later years. Like many traumatic events, the experience of being a refugee produces differing results, in some cases strengthening families and in other cases weakening them.

In 2005, a small group of Russian families arrived in a small town in west Texas. Their journey actually began more than a decade earlier when they fled persecution in their home country of Turkey; they soon found that their new home in Russia offered little more in the way of security. Upon arrival in the United States, they were given housing and a meager stipend for several months and encouraged to find employment and learn English.

The refugee children began attending public schools and picked up English fairly quickly, while their parents studied in language classes held at a local church. While hard-working and highly motivated, they faced tremendous challenges finding employment; some of the men found entry-level work in a local bakery, but the labor was mindless and paid little. In a few months, a new group of refugees arrived, beginning the cycle again. Numerous similar refugee communities exist throughout the United States today.



Hathaway, James C. The Rights of Refugees under International Law. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The State of the World's Refugees: Human Displacement in the New Millennium. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Pipher, Mary. The Middle of Everywhere: Helping Refugees Enter the American Community. New York: Harcourt Books, 2002.


Caesar, Mike. "Post-9/11 Law Keeps Colombian Refugees Out of US." Christian Science Monitor 32 (2006): 551-568.

Nawyn, Stephanie J. "Faith, Ethnicity, and Culture in Refugee Resettlement." American Behavioral Scientist 49 (2006): 1509-1527.

Prothero, Mitch. "A Wellspring of Anger." U.S. News & World Report 140 (June 26, 2006): 34-35.

Web sites

Human Rights Watch. "Refugees." 〈〉 (accessed July 13, 2006).

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. "Refugees." 〈〉 (accessed July 13, 2006).

U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants. 〈〉 (accessed July 13, 2006).

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Life's Biggest Lemon

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