An Echo of the Past: Refugees, Now and 60 Years Ago

The Syrian Refugee Crisis has emerged as one the most pressing problems facing the world today. It’s been all over the news, and with good reason. The Syrian Refugee Crisis has had a huge impact on world events, claiming as its victims the greatest number of displaced people seen since World War II. The statistics are staggering: according to the United Nations, as of August 2015, a quarter of a million people have died and 12 million people have been displaced from the violent struggle between the Syrian Regime, rebel fighting groups, and ISIS.  The discussion of how to address this situation, or if we even should, has been apparent and controversial all across the world. Some countries have offered aid to hundreds of thousands of refugees, while others have barely budged. The United States has been wary, to say the least, of letting in many refugees, but they are making the effort to reduce their suffering; just recently, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced that major world powers had arrived at a deal that would create a ‘cessation of hostilities” and work towards more effective and immediate aid to the refugees. The situation is not perfect, but it is arguably a step forward. The our various nations’ actions will write history, and it is a truly a time of change.

Yet as new and frightening as this situation may seem, it’s not too different from events that have happened in the fairly recent past. Just in the course of the 20th century, there have been a daunting number of refugee crises. Just 70 year ago, during the Korean War, hundreds of thousands of Koreans faced similar turmoil in their own country, and their struggles mirroring Syrian refugees’ struggles today.

I think a pretty good illustration of this can be shared through a personal anecdote. I am probably one of the least Korean people you’ll meet who has full Korean heritage; I was born in Chicago, I don’t speak Korean, and I’ve never been to Korea. However, my family has deep roots in both sides of that country. Though my father was born in South Korea, both his parents had come from the north and had escaped during the course of the war. I had known vaguely about this history, but I didn’t really begin to understand it until fairly recently — just a couple months ago, on Christmas Eve.

Sitting near our kitchen table, I saw my grandparents, my dad, and my uncle were huddled over what seemed to be a large map. The map was colorful and large, illustrating one mass of land with big blocks of color marking different regions. Korean text was practically all over, in a font so small you had to squint to read it. My grandmother was murmuring something in Korean, tracing her fingers down the paper.

I had no idea what was going on.  Fortunately, my dad was explaining the whole ordeal to my mom.

“My friend John went to North Korea recently, and he bought a map of Korea and gave it to us,” he told her.

My mom looked surprised. “North Korea?” she asked. “I didn’t know you were allowed to go there.”

My dad shrugged. “Well… I guess you can, through China. You have to be really careful when you state your purpose, though.”

To Americans, North Korea seems like a looming enigma. We don’t really have a clear idea of what goes on there, though we have some unpleasant hints. A detailed map of North Korea, made by the people who know it best, North Koreans, was a treasure trove of information. Especially when you’re like my grandparents, trying to keep track of their home that they had fled from so long ago. The Korean War was decades ago, but its outcome was far from conclusive.  A land formerly united still stood divided, with hundreds of families ripped apart, perhaps without the ability to see each other ever again. There was still a lot of information to discover.

Over the next half hour, my grandparents succeeded in finding a lot of information. They located the cities where they were born, barely inches from each other on the map. In a mixture of broken English and Korean, my grandmother explained how she left.

“I was eight when we left,” she said. “1950. The Reds- communists- were almost there when we escaped on the boat.” She dragged a finger from North Korea, through the sea, then back into South Korea. “We got off in Seoul.”

“And that’s where you met Dad, right?” my uncle asked. “It’s funny how you guys lived so close in North Korea and didn’t even realize it.”

My grandmother hummed in response and went back to examining the map. She told us about a big mountain significantly inland, Changjin. It had apparently killed tons of Americans, unaccustomed to the icy climate, during the war. She explained names and places from her childhood, her escape, her own ancestors. It was eye-opening and mind-blowing all at once, finding myself so incredibly immersed in my own history.

Finally, her last comment before we rolled up the map made me stop and think.

“When I see those people on the news now,” my grandmother said, “…Syrans?”

“Syrians?” my uncle supplied.

“Ah, yes. When I see the Syrian refugees on TV, I think, ‘I am just like them.’ We have gone through similar experiences”.

I had never thought of it that way. When I saw all those refugees on the news, suffering and trying to flee their war-torn country, I had always felt a sort of separation between them- an irrevocable difference. But these refugees now were like my grandparents in the 1950s, fleeing from Korea. They were like European immigrants during World War II, or Vietnamese refugees, or Bangladeshi refugees. The point is, we are not so different from these people. America’s diverse population indicates that many Americans today have their homes thanks to their ancestors fleeing their former country. Syrian refugees are not just people that need help; chances are, they were us, not so long ago.

Syria’s refugee crisis is obviously one of the major current events happening today. It’s heartbreaking to watch innocent people torn from their homes and the danger they must go through to find a new home. But these were people I’ve never known, probably won’t ever. Knowing that their experiences are so similar to some of my closest family members- that their pain, their uncertainty, their adversity, could be mirrored by someone I had grown up with- made both their struggle and my grandparents’ own struggle that much more real and incredible. Fleeing from my home country is not an experience I know, nor is it an experience I think I will ever know. But support for the refugees today is essential, especially in big first-world countries like America. To understand the present, we must understand the past; after all, doesn’t history repeat itself? And through these revelations, I think I did understand the past a little better.

Further Reading

These are the resources I used while researching this article. They’re comprehensive and detailed- I truly recommend them for anyone who wants a more in-depth knowledge of the current crisis.

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