As children of refugees, the war in Ukraine has brought up painful memories.
At APEN, our roots are in California’s Asian immigrant and refugee communities. Many of our members and staff were forced to leave our homelands fleeing war and imperialism. Others carry intergenerational stories with them, passed down by parents and grandparents who lived through the devastation of war decades ago.
As the war in Ukraine worsens and we see images of people in Ukraine caught in the crossfire between U.S. and Russian imperialism, many of us have been reminded of our own families’ stories and been moved to share them with each other.
By sharing these stories, we hope to build solidarity across difference — connecting disparate threads and building a united front against war and empire. Below are memories carried across generations from four APEN staff members whose families survived war.
Denny Khamphanthong, Richmond Community Organizer
The recent invasion of Ukraine brought back a lot of difficult memories for me. I think about my grandmother’s experience as a refugee from Laos rebuilding her life and establishing her home through the soil of the Verde Elementary school garden. She, along with many Laotian people living in the States, had to flee Laos after the United States pulled out of Vietnam and ceased their proxy war in Laos, the “Secret War.” Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam became a battleground for Cold War superpowers who sought to control resources in our homeland.
Many of my elders were child soldiers during the secret war in Laos, and they had no other choice but to fight against their own people with the empty promise of self-determination and democracy from the United States and the CIA who gave them weapons and resources to destroy their own people. We are the victims of United States imperialism and greed from Cold War superpowers whose only intention was to control and exploit the resources from our people and our land. The wounds of war run deep within our blood, and the pain of losing the place you call home never goes away.
These intergenerational memories and stories are difficult to hold, but they are also a source of solidarity. Right now, ordinary people in Ukraine are facing a violent invasion and occupation of their home. As I think of how best to support the people impacted by this war, I can’t help but think of the stories of war and oppression I grew up hearing. My Black neighbors came from the south to escape racism and discrimination in search of new jobs and opportunity. My neighbors from South and Central America had to flee their homes due to proxy wars caused by the Cold War superpowers who used us as pawns. We are the direct victims of failed US imperialism and capitalism all living in this neighborhood called North Richmond.
Even with all that trauma, we made it a place that we could call home. Especially my grandmother, who took the initiative to learn English and establish meaningful relationships with neighbors who would collectively turn abandoned soil into beautiful gardens.
Marie Choi, Communications Director
My halmoni (grandmother) never talked about the war growing up. When I was young, we passed time together listening to Korean talk radio, tending to the garden, and visiting the other Korean grandmas on the block to share food and stories. One of the grandmas often brought over steaming hot bowls of unformed sticky ricecake that we would pull with our fingers and dip into honey before stuffing it into our mouths.
When my halmoni finally opened up, I was in my mid-20s. She said that when the bombs started raining down, coming closer to her village, she put her young son on her back and walked together with thousands of refugees from her family’s farm near Yecheon to Busan, nearly 200 miles away. She remembered the sound of bombs, how they lit up the sky at night. She wondered whether the elders that had stayed behind on the farm were still alive, whether there would even be a home to return to. More than anything else, she remembered the streets lined with decomposing bodies. At first people had tried to bury the bodies along the way, but soon there were too many to bury. For weeks after that conversation, she told me that she dreamt about the war. “I can still smell the bodies,” she said.
In U.S. history, the Korean War is often referred to as the Forgotten War, one of many Cold War battlefronts: a testing ground for strategies like carpet bombing, explicit targeting of civilians, and total destruction of cities and villages that would later be used in Cambodia and Vietnam. But for Koreans across the diaspora, the ongoing war, the division of people, families, and land between North and South, and the series of U.S. backed military dictatorships that followed in the South shaped the lives of generations.
My grandma taught us to live diligently — 부지런하게 살아라. From her, I learned to always keep my hands busy: cooking, gardening, sewing, mending. This way of being has sometimes been a way to avoid difficult feelings, focusing instead on projects and to-do lists. Other times, it’s been a way to keep my body from feeling overwhelmed while I process pain and trauma. I wonder if this was how she survived too.
Ayesha Abbasi, SOMAH Outreach Coordinator
The partition of India in 1947 resulted in the end of the British Raj and the creation of a newly arranged subcontinent that included India and Pakistan. In school, we are taught about the divide between Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs, but much of the religious division that came up during partition can be attributed to the violence of white supremacist colonialism.
Stories from partition are only one generation away from me. I’ve heard both the experiences of my Nanoo and Dadi (maternal and paternal grandmothers), who were young Muslim girls living in India during the time. Neither shied away from describing vivid imagery and providing political analysis to me in my own youth. My Dadi would recount how she sought refuge with her Hindu neighbors while mobs went through marking doors with Muslim families and killing all those inside. My Nanoo told stories of how after finally safely making it to Pakistan her and her mother would wait at the station all day to help identify family and loved ones to bring back to the home my Nanoo’s uncle had bought from a Hindu family who was looking to move out of Pakistan before the full fledged violence of partition broke out. They would wait at the station for trains, only to find the trains full of the bodies of people massacred at the border.
Neither of my grandmothers dive too deeply into the ways this experience affected their minds and bodies. My family mentions in passing how my Nanoo’s mother would hoard food in her elder age, hiding oranges and mangos under her bed until they would rot. She lived her post partition days in survival mode because of the damage caused by war and the levels of uncertainty mixed with extreme emotional distress. I’ve watched first hand the physical, mental, and emotional pain that facing violence to this degree can do and the types of effects it can have on generations to follow. There’s a deep importance I hold in reflecting on my family’s past experiences and allowing it to inform how I move forward with collective care and the fight against imperialism.
Vivian Yi Huang, Co-Director
When the Chinese Civil War re-ignited in 1945, my dad was living in the Guanxi region.
My dad never talks about any childhood memories of the war in China. But there was one time, when it was just the two of us in the front seats, on a long drive at night, where he opened up. He was a kid, even younger than me at that age, in his village in Guanxi. Soldiers came looking for his dad, questioning everyone, searching everywhere. Nobody knew anything and could truthfully say they didn’t know. But there was so much fear, the fear of people with guns and power who could use them.
For many of us, hearing the news over the last few weeks of the invasion of Ukraine has brought forward painful memories, but also compassion and a deep sense of solidarity with ordinary people in Ukraine facing violence and displacement.
Other staff and members shared similar stories that we are not able to include here. Each of these stories is unique, drawing on a distinct history and community with its own struggles, hopes and dreams. What unites them is a shared sense that we must do everything we can to oppose war and to fight for a world where people have the right to determine their own future, free from oppression and violence.
For more perspectives on the War in Ukraine, please see the following:
To read more about APEN’s roots in refugee communities affected by war, check out this piece last year by Torm Nompraseurt about his experience fleeing war in Southeast Asia and becoming a leader in Richmond’s Southeast Asian refugee communities.