Safe in America: Immigrants escape violence, embrace citizenship (w/video)

  • Vira Douangmany Cage talks about her experience coming to the United States with her parents as refugees from Laos. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • ABOVE: Vira Douangmany Cage talks about her experience coming to the United States with her parents as refugees from Laos. TOP LEFT: Douangmany Cage and her family in a Thai refugee camp. Douangmany Cage is in the front in a white, polka-dot dress. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Vira Douangmany Cage talks about her experience coming to the United States with her parents as refugees from Laos. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Vira Dougangmany Cage and her family in a Thai refugee camp. Dougangmany Cage is in the front wearing the white polka dotted dress. Her younger brother stands at her side along with her sisters and mother.

  • A photo of Victor Nuñez Ortiz and his mother, Delmy Ortiz when they lived in El Salvador. Nuñez Ortiz would have been around kindergarten age in this picture. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Victor Nuñez Ortiz talks about his experience coming to the United States from El Salvador as a young child. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A photo of Victor Nuñez Ortiz, standing up, when he lived in El Salvador. Nuñez Ortiz was around kindergarten age in this picture. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • ABOVE: Victor Nuñez Ortiz looks through photos while talking about his experience coming to the United States from El Salvador as a young child. RIGHT: Nuñez Ortiz and his mother, Delmy Ortiz, in El Salvador. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Thérèse Soukar Chehade, of Granby, who was born in Beirut, Lebanon, shares her experience of coming to the United States as a 21-year-old newlywed. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Thérèse Soukar Chehade, of Granby, who was born in Beirut, Lebanon, shares her experience of coming to the United States as a 21-year-old newlywed. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Thérèse Soukar Chehade, of Granby, who was born in Beirut, Lebanon, shares her experience of coming to the United States as a 21-year-old newlywed. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Thérèse Soukar Chehade, of Granby, who was born in Beirut, Lebanon, shares her experience of coming to the United States as a 21-year-old newlywed. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Thérèse Soukar Chehade, of Granby, who was born in Beirut, Lebanon, shares her experience of coming to the United States as a 21-year-old newlywed. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Thérèse Soukar Chehade, of Granby, who was born in Beirut, Lebanon, shares her experience of coming to the United States as a 21-year-old newlywed. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • On her most recent trip to Lebanon, Thérèse Soukar Chehade returned to Bcharri, a city in the north, where her grandmother used to live. The photo is her grandmother's home. She said the family would spend summers there when it became too hot in Beirut. —Thérèse Soukar Chehade

  • Thérèse Soukar Chehade, of Granby, who was born in Beirut, Lebanon, shares her experience of coming to the United States as a 21-year-old newlywed. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

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Published: 2/10/2017 7:17:19 PM

As child in El Salvador, Victor Nuñez Ortiz once saw his teenage neighbor be taken away in handcuffs by military officers who descended during the boys’ soccer game. It would be years before he saw the young man again and by then he “was all about the military.”

It was not uncommon for children and young men to be taken from the streets by the military or guerrilla fighters during the country’s civil war, which raged from 1980-1992. After a year’s wait, Nuñez Ortiz, his mother and four uncles in 1990 immigrated to the United States to escape the violence and rejoin family.

Growing up in Beirut, Lebanon, Thérèse Soukar Chehade saw “normal life” arrive in bursts. War broke out in the country four decades ago, as Soukar Chehade neared 13 years old. For the next eight years, she toggled between living the life of an ordinary teenager and hiding from bullets and bombs.

Arriving in Western Massachusetts at 21, she said she first felt a sense of relief no longer having to worry about going out at night for fear of bombs being dropped.

For a time, Vira Dougangmany Cage’s flight from Laos left her a quiet child. As she took a boat with her mother and brother to cross a river, she was told not to make noise because armed men were on the banks waiting to shoot.

“If I cried, made noise or made a sound, we would be in jeopardy,” she said. “I was a very quiet child after those instructions.”

After reuniting with the rest of her family in a refugee camp in Thailand, Dougangmany Cage and the rest of her family of seven moved to Massachusetts to start a new life.

Nuñez Ortiz, Soukar Chehade and Dougangmany Cage all settled in western Massachusetts and eventually became American citizens. Their stories provide a window into the experience of the more than 1 million people who have come from countries across the globe to live in the state.

The recent executive orders issued by President Trump focusing on immigration – whether building a Mexican border wall or creating bans and revoking visas – have raised questions about how many more immigrants will be able to follow in those footsteps.

Immigrants come for many reasons: to seek work, earn an education and find their own American dream. Some also come because they are forced to leave their home countries due to violence, persecution and civil war.

The stories that brought people to the Pioneer Valley from countries like Laos, Lebanon and El Salvador are different. But in these uncertain times, these Americans they share one thing: they recognize the importance of their citizenship.

Leaving El Salvador

Long before Victor Nuñez Ortiz came to the U.S., his great aunt Milagro and aunt Elsie made the journey. For 20 years, Milagro worked as a maid, saving money to send for more of her family. By 1990, she had saved enough money to file an application for Nuñez Ortiz, his mother, four uncles.

Nuñez Ortiz was seven years old when he made the journey.

“It’s very traumatizing for a little kid,” said Nuñez Ortiz, now 34. “To be one place one day and then the next day you’re in this totally new world.”

At the time, the civil war in El Salvador was nearing its end. In his neighborhood in Santa Lucia, Nuñez Ortiz would hear gunshots and see people firing guns right outside his doors and hear mortars and explosives going off.

“People didn’t know what was going on,” Nuñez Ortiz said.

Nuñez Ortiz said he remembered the military and guerrilla fighters who would come through his neighborhood in Santa Lucia.

“Things were starting to get bad,” he said. “Kids were starting to get taken away by the military.”

One day while he and his friends played soccer, Nuñez Ortiz said military personnel came to the field and put everyone up against a wall. A neighbor around 15 or 16 years old was placed in handcuffs and taken away, according to Nuñez Ortiz .

“He got grabbed from the streets, literally. They were doing it to kids from all over,” he said.

Nuñez Ortiz said he saw the man years later.

“He was all about the military,” he said. “Basically, he had told me they had taken him to be in the military. That’s what he did for the rest of his life.”

After about a year’s wait, the family was given approval to travel to the U.S. and flew to Logan Airport. Arriving in the country, Nuñez Ortiz was hungry.

His first meal? McDonald’s, Nuñez Ortiz said with a laugh.

Nuñez Ortiz moved to Amherst in 2000 to attend college at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. In 2001, he interrupted his studies to enlist in the United States Marine Corps. He served for five years, including a deployment in Iraq as a combat engineer.

When asked why he joined, Nuñez Ortiz had a lot of reasons. He attributes his attraction to military service to his childhood love of the cartoon hero He-Man and the discipline his aunts and mother gave him as a child.

“I grew up with three women who were very discipline-oriented,” he said.

He said he joined because he wanted to serve the U.S.

“When I say serve -- not just be a number -- I wanted to actually do something, like go on missions, he said. “In the Marines, they are actually on the ground, building stuff and interacting with other cultures.”

After returning from Iraq, Nuñez Ortiz said he attended school and worked in restaurants before getting a job with a suicide prevention program for veterans.

Now, Nuñez Ortiz works as a vice president and Chief Operation Office of Veterans Advocacy Services, a nonprofit that provides assistance to veterans.

While in the Marine Corps, Nuñez Ortiz filed paperwork to become a U.S. citizen but that got put aside for his deployment. He said when he got home he didn’t immediately pursue it.

With a push from his mother and his wife saying that he had already went to war for the country, Nuñez Ortiz officially became a citizen in September 2008.

“It solidified the fact that I was an American. Before, I was just an alien. I was a resident alien,” he said. “You don’t really feel safe [as a resident alien]. It can be taken away, just like anything. But with a citizenship, you know it’s there. They can’t take it away. That fear is no longer there.”

Coming of age

Thérèse Soukar Chehade was just shy of 13 when war broke out in Lebanon.

“That is really what I remember, mostly, because that was just the big memory of my life in Beirut,” she said. “I do not remember much before then. I mean I do, of course, but the war has made a lasting impression.”

At times, the war would dominate their days. Other times, it would not.

“Sometimes it would be long periods of time when there was no war and there were no battles, no fighting,” Soukar Chehade said. “We would just try to lead a normal life.”

Normal, until the fighting started again.

Now 54 and living in Granby, Soukar Chehade teaches English as a second language and is a published author. Before coming to the U.S., Soukar Chehade had taken some college classes but hadn’t finished her degree.

“You would take a class or two and then the fighting would start and then you would stop for a while,” she said. “I could not go consistently. Especially at that time, during those middle years it was pretty intense.”

By 1983, Soukar Chehade was 21 and newly married. Her husband had left Lebanon on a business visa for Western Massachusetts, where he had family.

For her, staying in Beirut was not an option.

“If you could, you left. It was in the middle of the war. It was in 1983, it had been going on for eight years,” she said. “It had really intensified during that time and then we left.”

Her siblings and her mother stayed in Beirut after Soukar Chehade left. Her father died when she was 14. Eventually, she said, her sister moved to Canada and then her brother and her mother came to Canada as well.

Arriving in Massachusetts at the end of August 1983, Soukar Chehade said she was surprised by the heat. As summer gave way to fall and the foliage began to change, she said she felt a sense a reprieve.

“At first it was this great relief of being in a place that was peaceful. I didn’t have to be scared,” she said. “I remember sleeping a lot … as if I had been, you know, as if I needed a lot of sleep – I needed to recover.”

As she began to settle in more, Soukar Chehade said she began to feel homesick and lonely but at the same time happy to be on her own.

“I had not had the chance to experience the things that most teenagers experience. I had them in bursts,” she said. “It was never continuous. I would have it for a little while and then I would have to go.

Here, she said, “it felt like my life was starting a little bit.”

In Massachusetts, she no longer had to worry about the possibility of bombs falling when she went out at night.

However, the process of getting a green card was stressful.

“We would have to hire a lawyer. I remember waiting and then thinking, oh, it’s not going to happen, and then I remember thinking, yes, it is going to happen. It was these ups and downs,” she said. “We were really worried. If we didn’t get the green card, that would have meant we would have to go back and that was still during the war.”

Five years later, Soukar Chehade was able to become a citizen.

She said the election of Trump has brought out two sides in her – fear and uncertainty about the future but also a fierce patriotism.

“It’s makes me really sad in a sense,” she said. “Not that it was ever perfect, not that I had ever believed wholeheartedly in the stories told about America the great, I still feel like there was something very good that is being threatened now.”

Living in Western Massachusetts, Soukar Chehade studied at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, earning both a master of fine arts and a masters in education.

She is the author of “Loom,” a novel about a Lebanese family that won an Arab American Book Award in 2011.

She also teaches English as a second language.

“I think it just came out of my situation,” she said. “I like language. It interesting to me to teach language and I feel like I could empathize a little bit with the students.”

Since moving to the U.S., Soukar Chehade has only been back thrice. Her most recent trip was four years ago. Prior to that, it had been more than a decade. She said for a time she was scared and afraid of getting on a plane. The next time she goes back, she said she promised her youngest son she would take him but said she is, for some reason, afraid.

“I’ve meant to go back and then (violence) started again,” she said. “It’s different when it’s my child, so that is where my hesitation comes from.”

From Laos to Brookline

Vira Dougangmany Cage was six when she arrived in Massachusetts from southeast Asia after her family fled their home in Vientiane, Laos.

Now 42, Dougangmany Cage said her family was “fortunate enough” to be reunited in a refugee camp in Thailand after having been separated as they went to escape the country.

She now lives with her husband and children in Amherst, where she serves on the school committee. She is a former organizer for the ACLU of Western Massachusetts and member of the state Asian-American Commission

As the Communists solidified power in the 1970s, Dougangmany Cage said her parents decided they needed to leave. Her father had worked as an official in Laos. If they stayed, she said, life would have been very different, uncertain and frightening.

“I think that rather than experience the oppression or the reorder of society, whatever that would look like, my parents decided to make the escape to a better future,” she said.

“We all took different journeys … escaping Laos, because to be together would raise suspicions,” she said. Her father left before Dougangmany Cage, her younger brother and her mother. Her older siblings left with cousins.

Their journey ended the simple pleasures and routines she had come to know.

“I have childhood memories of what it was like to play as a little kid in Laos – climbing trees and waiting for my dad to come home and getting up in the morning and finding if there were any eggs to bring to make fried eggs for my mom and dad,” she recalled.

“And then just the suddenness of having to be told or not be informed what we were up to or doing as far as planning our escape.”

Her mother, Dougangmany Cage said, packed sticky rice and plenty of beef jerky to carry them through a long hot bus ride into a countryside she didn’t recognize. Following the journey, they arrived at the home of an elderly woman who helped her mom chart the escape by hiring people to help them cross the river.

Dougangmany Cage said she remembered being in the boat and her mom instructing her to be quiet because there were people already dead in the bottom of the river as soldiers lined the banks ready to shoot.

They made it safely across. Afterwards, Dougangmany Cage walked with her mother, sometimes trudging through exhaustion as they made their way to a refugee camp in Thailand. The family spent about a year in the camp while Dougangmany Cage’s father wrote almost daily appeals to different countries before being accepted by the U.S.

Upon arrival in Massachusetts, Dougangmany Cage said her family first lived in the Brookline Refugee Resettlement House. All seven of them shared a room and a mattress, she said.

By the time Dougangmany Cage reached the fourth grade, she said her father had saved enough money to buy a triple-decker house in Dorchester. Her family lived in one unit and rented out the two others.

When her parents became American citizens, their daughter did, too. Recalling the effort her parents made to complete the process, Dougangmany Cage became emotional. She said her mother, being less educated than her father, had failed her test a few times but persisted and eventually passed.

“It’s very hopeful and inspiring to me because my dad waited for her to pass her exam so all of the family could be sworn in together,” Dougangmany Cage said. “We covet that. We value what U.S. citizenship means.”

In the years since, having watched others become citizens, she called it “an important process.”

“It’s protection,” she said. “We know that if you are not, you can be deported anytime. It’s just more safety and security being a citizen.”

Now faced with President Trump’s anti-immigrant stance, Dougangmany Cage said she has been pleased by the outpouring of support for immigrants and opposition to Trump’s initiatives.

“That’s good to have in our community,” she said. “I think people should really do everything that they can to say no to having very xenophobic view points. And stand up for people who are oppressed right now.”

While her parents have been back to Laos since they fled, Dougangmany Cage has yet to return.

“I hope to make that trip back with my family, my own kids and my husband,” she said. “I think I would be a very good experience. We have family in Laos and it will be good to connect with them and to see what it is like.”

Emily Cutts can be reached at ecutts@gazettenet.com. 




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