Personal Accounts from Lowell Immigrants

The Big Move: Immigrant Voices from a Mill City (edited by Robert Forrant and Christoph Strobel), includes firsthand experiences from immigrants living in Lowell, Mass. Below are excerpts from two accounts by people who were forced to leave their home countries in order to acquire a better livelihood for themselves and their families. Stories like theirs are important if one is to understand the narrative of the refugee, a narrative that is very much relevant in today's world. 

From Chapter Two of The Big Move:

My name is Phala Chea. I live in Lowell. I come from Cambodia.

What were the decisions that motivated you and your family to move to the U.S.?
We had a very difficult situation in our country. The Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. Because of that, we were forced to escape to save ourselves. So basically, my immediate family and I left Cambodia in 1979 and fled to refugee camps in Thailand.

And then through the refugee process there, you were able to get to the United States?
Yes. It took us about a year and a half to leave the camps because we had to go through the refugee application process and find a sponsor. We were able to locate my mother's cousins in Oregon. It took us a year and a half to get to the U.S. with his sponsorship.

From Chapter Four of The Big Move:

My name is Thong Phamduy. I've lived in the lower Highlands, for probably about twenty years there now. Previously I lived in South Lowell, for about five years there. So I lived a total of twenty-five years in Lowell.

You came here from Vietnam? Can you talk a little about your experience if you don't mind?
Most of the Vietnamese who got out of the country between 1975 to, I would say 1990, or even a little later than that, got out by boat. They're called "Boat People." I was part of the first wave of boat people, those who left during the first five years after the collapse of Saigon. A big wave of people got out by boat. Usually we landed in another country near Vietnam, in my case Indonesia. Other people landed in the Philippines or Malaysia. We basically waited there and hoped that another country would accept us as refugees. In my case the U.S. picked me up.

How long did you stay in the refugee camps?
Probably about six months.

That was relatively fast then.
Very short! The refugees during the fist wave could still relatively easily leave for a third country.

What motivated you to leave Vietnam?
We had to get out. The Communists took over, and my family, we had ties with the old government. My father was working for the police force. He was a high ranking officer. So we had a difficult time. He was jailed. That was the main reason. We couldn't live there; it was too difficult.

The Big Move: Immigrant Voices from a Mill City is available at <>.

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