Syrian Boat People: Unlocking The Iron Box of Grief

When you are in the middle of a mass exodus, you don't realize that what you went through was particularly astounding. You’re just glad that it’s over.


In 2014, during the height of the Syrian refugee crisis, thousands upon thousands were fleeing by boat in the hope for something better. Photos of this wave of desperate humanity flooded news outlets in Australia: small, overcrowded boats tossed around in the open ocean.

Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons

I happened to be visiting my parents when all of this was unfolding.

From what I could gather, there was a wave of post-traumatic memories revisiting the Vietnamese community through the reporting of the Syrian experience in Vietnamese language newspapers.

That was us. Torn between homeland and the horror of war.

Stock footage: Boat of Vietnamese refugees capsizing off shore.

And when it's happening to you, when you are the news, when the trauma becomes chronic and ongoing, you stuff down the feelings because that iron box in your chest is all you have. And you keep going because that is the only “choice”.

As I listened to my parents and their friends, I could tell that they were experiencing post-traumatic grief, thirty-five years later. It was such a bittersweet gift from the Syrian boat people to a handful of Vietnamese boat people in a four-bedroom, red brick home in the suburbs of Noble Park in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.

Because we are safe now and the Syrians are not.

The hard lumps in their throats. The iron boxes in their chests. The ocean full of tears that they hadn't been able to weep. The thirty-five years of silence now made sense: I finally got to hear details about our treacherous boat journey, about the terror involved in the price of freedom.

After trauma comes grief. It's the ability to say, “That happened to me. That happened to us,” in the past tense. “It’s over now. We are safe now. We made it.”

With grief comes reclamation. To metabolize that grief is to reclaim the parts of my soul - the parts of our souls - that left that day amidst the terror. Grieving heals trauma.

That day I found out that, on two occasions, our boat was raided by pirates. They took women from our boat onto their boat.

When my mother told me this, I saw her body descend into wracking tears. She was finally able to move that frozen terror that had been locked in her body all these years. She was so fearful that that was going to happen to her back then when she was six-months pregnant with my little sister. She was fortunate, so very, very, very fortunate.

Mama, it’s over now. The bad men are gone now. We made it. We’re safe now.

Mum, me and Dad.


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