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#WorldRefugeeDay: The first year in America

Mae is one of the most captivating storytellers I know. Every morning, we would have a cup of coffee together and I’d pick her brain for the fragmented memories that I know she’ll soon forget with every passing day. For this year’s #WorldRefugeeDay, I asked mae what she remembers from the first day we arrived in America. She recalled the time as dai meu, dai theen. When we could grow our own hands and feet– to walk and to eat.

On the way to America

We were riding on the bus to the airport in the Philippines. As we got off, I forgot my water bottle on the bus. I kept saying “water, water, water”. I learned English in primary school but I only remembered survival words. Your baby brother kept tugging at my sinh. He wanted Pepsi and you screamed for candy. Both of you were driving me crazy. I remember when dad wanted to go to the bathroom on the plane, but he held it in during the whole flight because he was scared of how tiny it was and if he couldn’t get it to unlock.

Living in the housing projects of North Minneapolis

Rent was $400 a month at the apartments on Humboldt Avenue. There were 10 of us in a three-bedroom apartment. It was infested with moth balls and the air was hard to breathe at night. We’d keep the fan going. One of the first donated items we got was an old mattress. It had a hard spring that popped out and scratched at our backs all night. So we’d put layers and layers of blankets on top of it but you’d keep taking it off to play with the spring. Lao Assistance Center of MN was the first organization to help us because we didn’t know much English. Everyone talked too fast to us. When dad passed his driver’s license, we could finally go places. An uncle across the street bought us a stroller for you and Bee. We were so happy. I started going to the mall and the Sculpture Garden and you tried to climb up and bite the cherry on the spoon.

Refugee habits are still alive 

I had a habit of collecting cans to sell. Dad had a habit of fishing all day at the lakes. You remember when people would hit and leave dying deer on the road? It was perfectly fine to take. Dad would get all of us out of the van and make you and your brothers help carry it into the back of the car. The neighbors’s kids would tease us. Said we were eating humans– called us cannibals. It was quite funny, but I know you had a hard time in school with them.

The Phaengdaras

The Phaengdaras

I still have the vacuum, blender and blankets from our first year in 1987. I don’t want to let them go because they’ve been with us from the beginning. All of this makes up for leaving the Mekong. That’s what dad and I keep telling ourselves.

-Chanida Phaengdara Potter, 

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