I watched this film at a time when the US is in the midst of a major debate over its immigration program. One side views immigrants who came here illegally as potentially dangerous and argues for tighter border controls. The other side sees illegal immigrants as a positive force in the US who make important contributions to America and who simply want a better life for themselves and their children.
I have no political opinion on this very complex matter, but watching First They Killed My Father gave me a better understanding of the plight of refugee children who are caught in the crossfire of larger political currents. First They Killed My Father is a harrowing account, from a child’s perspective, of what it means to be compelled to leave your normal, comfortable family life and suddenly become a poor person seeking safety and basic human needs such as food and clothing.
The story takes place in 1975 in Cambodia, a “neutral” country geographically close to Vietnam, which is at war with the United States. When the country is taken over by the Khmer Rouge, Loung Ung’s family is at grave risk because her father served as a senior military official in the Cambodian government. He represents an ideology diametrically opposed to the fanatical communist ideology of the Khmer Rouge, who during their period of ascendency killed almost two million Cambodians by execution, starvation and forced labor.
Loung, together with her siblings, is placed in a forced labor camp and her parents are eventually separated from her. Outwardly, she learns how to be a child soldier and conforms to the rules of the camp, but inwardly she yearns to escape the oppressive soldiers and guards who are watching her constantly. It is a frightful experience for her and her entire family as we observe Loung , barely seven years old, trying to make sense of the incomprehensible happenings around her.
Jewish law and tradition emphasizes the importance of welcoming the stranger, the refugee in our midst, who has no protector. Nechama Leibowitz, a Biblical scholar, notes that the command to welcome the stranger appears in the Torah 36 times. We are frequently to remember how it felt when we were strangers in a foreign land.
Moreover, the Bible teaches us that all human beings are created in the image of God. Everyone possesses part of the Divine within and everyone has infinite potential. Rabbi Yitzchak Greenberg, a modern Orthodox thinker and educator, says that when we recognize these qualities within man, especially in a refugee population to whom we extend a helping hand, we are sanctifying God’s name.
Moses wanted to immortalize this national characteristic of helping the stranger and so he names his son Gershom, which comes from the Hebrew word for stranger, ger. The history of Moses’s people is bound up in understanding that Jews grew up as “strangers in a strange land.” Furthermore, The Ethics of the Fathers importunes us to look beyond the self: “If I am only for myself, what am I?”
Given the reality today that unrestricted entry in the United States has implications for the safety and security of our citizens, and welcoming the stranger is not so simple as it was many years ago, we still are bidden by our faith to aid the stranger whenever we can without endangering our own lives. When it is clear that the newcomer poses no threat to us, we must help. The child refugees depicted in First They Killed My Father represent that population that requires our aid without hesitation or restriction.