The Life of a Refugee
by Hailey Hollinshead
In my old age I cannot help but reminisce on the good and the bad of my life. My name is Sato Hashizumi and I am nearing my eighty-sixth birthday. I was born in Japan in the year of 1931. I do not recall much of an experience there because my family immigrated to the United States in the period of my infancy1. I remember Portland, Oregon. The forests were thick and the sky was often cloudy, but my family and I were very happy there. I went to the local public school with many children. Other Japanese Americans attended my school as well. We rode bikes, we baked cookies, we colored, we learned, and became friends with the other children. And then, when I was ten years old, WWI broke out. I remember I was getting ready for school the morning of December 7th, 1941. I was in the bathroom brushing my teeth when my dad broke his usual routine of watching the morning news to hurry into the kitchen to converse with my mother who at the time was fixing breakfast. I heard a pan fall and clatter on the counter and a hush fell after. My uncle was on that base when it was bombed. He had immigrated years before and was a crew member on the U.S.S. Arizona. The only way to describe the moment when my mother realized that her brother was one of the twenty four hundred casualties that morning was pure heartbreak. Our family suffered a tremendous loss. The following day we were plunged head first into war. It took a few days for the full impact of the bombing to hit everyone, but soon enough I could feel a change in the atmosphere. Everyone knew that Japan had bombed the United States. I was confused how this had anything to do with me, a U.S. citizen but my appearance started wedging a block between my “friends” and I.
Within two weeks of the bombing, I had no friends besides other Japanese Americans. I could see the separation at school. I could feel the dirty looks thrown upon me at my locker, in my classes and even on the school bus. But it didn’t stop there. The man who held the door for everyone stepped away quickly when a Japanese American approached. The waiters and waitresses at restaurants no longer refilled your waters or brought you little mints at the end of the meal like everyone else. The kids at school wouldn’t spare a glance your way on the playground even if you brought chalk to color on the sidewalks with. It was as if everyone had lost their manners. But as it turned out, it was much worse than this. There was a legitimate hate spread across the nation for Japanese Americans. This astounded me. How could wise, intelligent and fully educated people classify not only those who immigrated from Japan a threat, but also citizens that just happened to have Japanese descent. It was shocking how the dynamic of how my family and I were treated changed in just a day. As if the treatment wasn’t enough, the government issued a new regulation that stated that the military could decide who was a threat and how the threat would be contained. I was ten years old when I was sent to the Portland Assembly Center1. My family was only given a weeks notice of our forced evacuation. It was just a single letter that took everything away from my family and I. Our dignity, home and belongs were compromised. My loving puppy had to be set on the streets because not one of my neighbors would take her. Honestly, not one of them would even answer their doors when I came knocking. I couldn’t bring my dolls or my pretty dresses. My parents had to leave behind family heirlooms and furniture and our silverware and crystal glasses. As we left our home that following Saturday morning it looked as if their were still residents in the house. We only had taken what we could on our backs and in small bags. The rest of our belongings were left behind. As we arrived we were sorted and given little tags. It reminded me of a postal service processing center, because we were treated like objects and the chaos. I remember wondering what would happen to us and if I would ever see my little puppy Ralph ever again. We were at the processing center for a week before we were packed up onto buses and carted to the Minidoka Internment Camp in Idaho2. This camp was also known as Camp Hunt, and was the largest holding over 9,000 refugees4. It was one long bus ride that didn’t have many stops. As we came upon the internment camp I felt such a strong desire for home that it shook me to my very core, but I had to remain proud as my mother had always taught me1. I could not cry or I would lose yet another part of me. “We saw all these people behind the fence, looking out, hanging onto the wire, and looking out because they were anxious to know who was coming in. But I will never forget the shocking feeling that human beings were behind this fence like animals [crying]. And we were going to also lose our freedom and walk inside of that gate and find ourselves…cooped up there…when the gates were shut, we knew that we had lost something that was very precious; that we were no longer free." (Mary Tsukamoto)2
The next three years I spent waiting in line for everyday things. I had no freedom or rights whatsoever. We waited in line for food and even the bathroom. We couldn’t just get up and do whatever we wanted there were pre-determined times for everything2. My family and I lived in a horse stable1. One that did not smell very good to say the least. The filth was everywhere and we had to sleep on it. We didn’t have furniture. We had a curfew every night and a wake up call every morning. One thing that helped me survive was the ability to participate in sports. We played anything and everything in the time allowed and bonded over athletics. My personal favorite was baseball. When we played we felt free and could forget about our situation for a while. This didn’t change the truth behind the camps. They weren’t for our safety, they were prisons for thousands of innocent men, women and children. When we finally were released, the dynamic of the nation had not changed. Our freedom did not mean we were treated the way we were before the war. The hate and the dirty looks continued. We returned to our homes to find our belongings gone or others living in our houses. It wasn’t until 1988 that a Federal Commission’s findings convinced Congress that the internment camps were unethical and that some type of justice needed to be administered. Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 that acknowledged the “grave injustice” and promised to repay Japanese Americans for their losses3. Today the Japanese American community is still working to make sure those who lost everything are compensated 3. Today in the camp I was held the plaque across the entrance reads, “May these camps serve to remind us what can happen when other factors supersede the constitutional rights guaranteed to all citizens and aliens living in this country.”4