When I was a baby I was separated from my parents. The details are lost, but the story is that when I was days or weeks old I was left in a box on the steps in front of a police station in Seoul Korea. I’ve always assumed my mother voluntarily left me, given the circumstances.
What were they, those circumstances? Again, they are part of a story that faded away, like the non-existent note pinned to my blanket, never to be captured, only imagined.
From there I was put into an orphanage. In fact, that’s where I got my last name, Kim, which was the name of the head of the orphanage during those months. All of us babies were given his name. For the year I lived there, I didn’t thrive, and barely survived, because I was in an orphanage in an impoverished country. While I lived there, a wave of small pox swept through the cribs and most of the babies around me died. I wasn’t spared the disease—I’ve got the scars to prove it—but I survived, only to become so malnourished I couldn’t lift my head. At that point someone intervened and I was sent to live with a foster mother. I’ve been told that moving to her house was probably what saved my life.
I was 12 months old, unable to sit, lift my head or track objects with my eyes. I was learning Korean, and while I may or may not have made attachments in the orphanage, I most certainly did when I lived in foster care. Twelve months later I was adopted and taken from that home, the only one I knew at the time, and put on a plane to come to a new country, with new sounds, smells and sights.
I screamed during the entire flight from Seoul to San Francisco.
My parents were new at the parenting thing. I was their first and they didn’t expect me to scream when I was put in a bed, only to calm down when someone slept beside me on the floor. I screamed when I drank milk: people didn’t know much about lactose intolerance, which is rampant among non-whites. I screamed whenever my parents left me in the house, whether they were feeding the horses, moving the watering hose, or picking up the mail. We had a floor to ceiling window in our living room and they would comment how I would slam the glass and throw my head back and howl whenever they left, even if it was for just a minute.
It’s almost embarrassing how little doctors and parents knew about child development back in those days. How little they understood the deep need humans have to form attachments, and that we do so at crucial points in our development. However, I think most of us instinctively understand that babies thrive with loving and consistent caregivers. That when it’s not possible, the damage can be foundational and that the effects wind through life, flaring up in unexpected ways.
You might look at me and think that being unable to form attachments didn’t screw me up too much. I’m educated, went to college and law school, have a close group of friends, have been married for decades and even raised a fairly awesome kid.
Then you might think, maybe those kids—you know, the ones being separated from their parents right now, the ones whose parents are seeking asylum—well, maybe they’ll be okay.
Maybe. But it’s more likely they won’t. It will depend on how their story ends. How long they are separated. If they are ever reunited with their parents, and what happens after.
It was after I had my own kid that I believe the residual trauma of being abandoned and moved from place to place raised its ugly (pathetic) head. I could not let my daughter out of my sight. I think many parents are like that—it’s got to be an evolutionary protection, right—but for me there was no separation from my kid for months, even years. I had to protect my child in a manner that seemed almost pathological in safe, pleasant Portland. I had once experienced the ultimate danger, and whether it was anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, or the fact that I wasn’t able to form lasting attachments until I was two, I had been damaged.
But perhaps I’m not that unusual. Most parents protect their children. That’s why they pull them out of burning buildings, why they leave everything behind when bombs destroy their neighborhood, why they send their kids on ahead with a note and a home cooked lunch when lawlessness abides and they know they have no power to keep them safe. Why they risk their own lives to find asylum, protection, for their children. The Jews in Germany, the Muslims in Syria, the Christians in ancient Rome, the Rohingya in Myanmar, the battered women in Mexico, and the teenagers in El Salvador all know that staying still is more dangerous than anything they imagine will happen when they leave.
Not every refugee (a person who seeks refuge) comes to our borders, but some do. Children are hurt every day, in every country. We know that. We live with that. But I think what resonates with Americans now is that children are being hurt and it’s not a natural disaster, it’s not another government, it’s not a different century. It’s happening on our watch, under our government, and it’s an issue of a difference of opinions. Of who should be American and who shouldn’t. Of which laws to enforce and which to ignore. Of where empathy begins and morality ends. We know that we should be able to change it, but we sit jaded, hesitant and hopeless.* The children and their parents in the news today will live or they will die. But our souls, our dignity, our own freedom will be haunted if we do nothing.
We’ll know because the screams will be too loud to ignore.
*Sadly, there are those who aren’t hesitant or hopeless. They cheer this on because this is what they wanted when they voted for Trump. They want that wall, they want America white and mono-cultured, and they believe stopping immigration at any cost is righteous. Their ancestors cheered those who slaughtered Native Americans, bought slaves, enforced Jim Crow laws and burned down black neighborhoods.