By Joe Cimperman
In a time of xenophobia and anti-refugee rhetoric, let’s remember what refugees endured to get here and what they bring to our communities.
Loung Ung is ours. I know she’s a daughter of Cambodia. Because of her books and now her movie, she’s a citizen of the world. But Loung is also a Clevelander, part of the living mural that makes this city so special.
If you don’t know of her incredible story, it’s time to hear it. “First They Killed My Father,” the new movie by Angelina Jolie, is her story. It is her story. It will stay with you long after the film ends. It is the story after the ending that Loung is writing every day, and to the benefit of everyone in Northeast Ohio, those born here and those born abroad.
Loung is a survivor of the Cambodian genocide of the 1970s. She was five when her family was torn from its middle-class life in the capital city of Phnom Penh and forced to trek into the countryside, into the twisted world of the Khmer Rouge. Both of her parents were murdered. Her little sister starved to death. More than 20 relatives perished in one of the worst human atrocities of the 20th century.
Through luck and sheer will, Loung survived. She made it to America and recounted her odyssey in a breathtaking book, “First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers.” Seventeen years later, Angelina Jolie turned that book into a harrowing movie, which is now streaming on Netflix and showing at select theaters across the land.
Toward the end of the movie, we see Loung re-uniting with her surviving siblings in a war-torn Cambodia. The audience is left to wonder what happened next. We know what happened. Cleveland happened. Her gift of her life to Northeast Ohio happened. Her blood and tears and joys and dreams as a REFUGEE living and thriving here in Cleveland, in Shaker Heights, on West 25 Street next to the West Side Market, happened.
Loung’s older brother and his wife were able to get her out of Cambodia. They were resettled by a church group in Vermont, where Loung attended college. There, she met a young man from Cleveland, Mark Priemer. They married and moved to his hometown of Shaker Heights.
Loung writes and travels widely as a human right activist. She became friends with luminaries like Angelina Jolie, Patch Adams, Paul McCartney and Queen Noor. But she also puts her immigrant spirit to work in her new hometown. Loung and Mark helped develop restaurants on West 25th Street, starting with Bar Cento and Bier Markt, continuing with Market Garden Brewery and the huge new brewery behind the West Side Market. The couple worked with colleagues like Sam McNulty to create restaurants and a destination that employs hundreds of people.
Think about it: a refugee fleeing war torn genocide, being welcomed not banned in the United States, participating in economic development for native born and internationally born people alike, creating millions of dollars in economic development, and providing hundreds of jobs. Her refugee story is like so many other refugee stories, and the possibilities of what these members of our human family can do is infinite. They may speak differently than we do, worship differently, and enjoy and celebrate different customs. But what do we have in common? A desire for family, for success, for sharing good news with neighbors and finding solace together when times are hard.
This is Luong’s story. This is the story of the 1,100 refugees who came to Cleveland last year, and the 750 this year. Over 1,800 new strivers, entrepreneurs, community builders, parent teacher organization attendees, soccer coaches, idea factories, neighbors, employees, fellow worshippers, refugees.
At Global Cleveland, we’re not surprised when our refugees work wonders. We see it often. Something about the refugee experience creates not only survivors but strivers.
I had the honor of speaking this August 28 at the annual benefit for The Refugee Response, a nonprofit group that helps prepare refugees for success in Northeast Ohio. The setting was its Ohio City Farm, where long rows of vegetables and herbs run toward the cusp of the Cuyahoga River valley and the lights of downtown and beyond.
It’s the largest urban farm in America and one of the reasons Cleveland is a national leader in the farm to table/ urban agriculture movement. More than a dozen restaurants, many of them in walking distance, buy their produce from the farm.
The Refugee Response hires newly arrived refugees to till the earth. It also offers the education and training they need to move past farming and succeed in an urban economy.
One of the first people I encountered that night was Luong. She had been in Los Angeles working on the movie post production. After a long flight home, she drove straight from the airport to the benefit. She didn’t want to miss the moment.
We were all greeted by refugees who work the farm. They were men and women from Iraq, Bhutan, Nepal and Congo. Like Loung, they were people who had lost everything and were starting over.
I thought of Loung and what she heard that changed everything and was probably the beginning of all she needed.
“Welcome,” I kept saying, “welcome home.” When people ask me that inevitable question, as the world churns and civil societies erupt, when boats are filled past capacity of people who never wanted to leave but for them and their babies they have to, when we have a nation built AND SUCCEEDING BECAUSE OF the huddled masses, the yearning, the community in some cases dying to be free, when people ask me, ask us, the inevitable question, “What can I do?” the answer is the follow up to thank you. The answer is “Welcome.”