When people hear "Syrian war refugees," they may think of a generous America providing for them. They'll move to the US and it's happily-ever-after, end-of-story. While America is, for the most part, a welcoming and open meritocracy, refugees and immigrants often end up providing for America, rather than the other way around.
2 RAYGUN managers, Mikey and Thomas, and 2 other RAYGUN employees are the children of Laotian refugees who arrived in Iowa in the 1970s. A population that lived through the Vietnam War and fled under threat of the Viet-Cong.
"My mom was born in Laos," says Mikey, who grew up in Des Moines. "I had an aunt who was literally born in the boat on the way here. ... Governor Robert Ray welcomed the entire Taidam community."
The Trump-led "SAFETY!!!" brigade may have also thrown a fraidy-cat eye toward the Laotians, who were leaving a region torn by war and strife for decades, and overflowing with Communists who had been in active combat against America. In fact, a later program to welcome Cambodians fleeing Khmer Rouge was "temporarily" halted by the Reagan administration, then never re-started, leading to possible thousands being killed when they were dropped from Thailand back into a Cambodian "safe zone."
But they came. And it was a community that ended up giving a lot to Iowa. Thomas explains that: "Both of my parents tried to attend high school but ended up dropping out due to the language barrier. They settled in Storm Lake (had yours truly!) and started working in food processing plants -- IBP/Tyson and Farmland. They started at 18 or 19 and are still there 20 years later. Working 40-50 hours a week and then working second jobs after shifts -- my dad is a handy man and my mom helps out a local restaurant. They got some help when they first got here, but they've earned everything they have through hard work. And they've earned their American Citizenship."
In addition to extreme work loads, the influx of Laotian and Latino immigrants in Storm Lake, each with language barriers, led to plenty of -- sometimes extreme -- community tension that Thomas could sense. "But," he explains, "for the most part we all got along ... Even my parents have developed friendships with many other races in Storm Lake."
When we look at the influx today, we should be proud of our heritage for accepting war refugees, but we should also realize that past tensions can be lessened with a more welcoming approach, not less. We should better support networks for those moving here, knowing that the more we give them, the more they'll help us.
To a lot of us at the store, though, Thomas and Mikey were two guys who worked here from Storm Lake and Des Moines!
The guy from Kansas is the only one viewed with suspicious for his non-assimilation (start rooting for Iowa State, you live HERE now!).
Iowa, or "Iowa Culture," isn't a fragile plant that needs to be carefully protected from adversity. "Iowa Culture" is fluid. Iowa is a place. Iowans are the people who live here.
Over 20% of RAYGUN's staff has parents who immigrated to America. It's not anything we've dwelled upon, to be honest. But the tone of divisions and "other-ness" today has caused a little introspection.
"I didn't realize how much I wanted to share my parents' journey to America until now," concludes Thomas. "But with everything happening today, I feel like others could use it too."