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May 3, 2007

What Happened to These Children of War?

"In my dreams, I find my father"

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Shocked by reports of Amerasian abuse in Vietnam, U.S. legislators passed the Amerasian Homecoming Act in 1987, allowing more than 26,000 children of American soldiers to immigrate to America. But plagued by illiteracy and language barriers, fewer than 40 percent pass the U.S. citizenship exam, meaning they cannot vote, they risk deportation, and they receive only limited government aid. For Thu Thuy Le, 33, life in the U.S. has brought new hope - but also new struggles.

My mother was a high school student when she met my father, a U.S. soldier stationed in Hue. She said he was handsome and charming, just a year older than she was. They lived together until eight months after I was born, in 1971.

I don't have any photos of my father. When the North Vietnamese troops took over my mother's hometown of Quang Tri, they beat her for having had a relationship with an enemy U.S. soldier, then they tore up her photos. For as long as I can remember, I was teased for being Amerasian. Other kids called me a half-breed. Even the teachers were cruel. When I was 9, I raised my hand to ask permission to use the bathroom, but the teacher didn't let me go, and I wet my pants. Eventually, I stopped going to school. Now I can only write my name.

My mother had two more children by a Vietnamese boyfriend - my brothers, Do Van Thanh, 25, and Do Van Ty, 20. We lived in Lao Bao, surviving off the vegetables and rice we grew ourselves. When I was 18, my mother died in my arms from an asthma attack. Her family took my brothers in, but I wanted to go to America. I'd heard of other immigrants who had sent money back; I thought I could provide for my brothers and eventually have them join me.

To get to the U.S., I first went to Saigon in 1993, where a family "adopted" me because they also wanted to go to America. This is how it was for Amerasians who couldn't read or write: I needed someone to help me with the visa application, and these people wanted a ticket to America in exchange. They did all my paperwork and changed my name to theirs. But we didn't have our "family" stories straight when embassy officials questioned us, so I was forced to go to America alone. Because I changed my last name on my documents, it is no longer the same as my biological brothers', so I can't prove they are my family - meaning I can't bring them to the U.S. to join me.

Today I live in Washington, DC, where I clean a dentist's office every day. I live with a friend's uncle and my two children. They were conceived through relationships I had when I got here, but they are my responsibility now. I send money back to my brothers in Vietnam - the youngest finishes high school this year. My life here is difficult, but I won't share this with my brothers. They ask me, "Sister, do you have money?" I say, "Yes!" I want them to feel like I've made it so they won't be sad. But it's hard ‑- I get $100 a month in food stamps, and I don't have any health insurance.

Sometimes I think about my father. I want to know my flesh and blood; I don't care whether he is rich or poor. If he were homeless, I'd bring him in and take care of him. If he wanted to give me even just $1, I'd take it, because he's my father, but I'd never ask. I'd just cry if I met him. Not in front of him, though - I'd wait until he left, then cry.

America is my home now. I have enough to eat and can send money back to my family. As for my dreams and hopes, I dream about citizenship. Previous U.S. presidents sent soldiers to fight in Vietnam; that's why we Amerasians exist. The current president should accept us as citizens. My blood and my father are American. And my children are American. So I want to be American, too - to really, finally, be part of the same family.

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