Five Degrees of Exile

by Eric Pape

Los Angeles Times Magazine

Sunday, July 11, 1999

California Is Haven to Many Political Figures Forced to Flee Their Native Countries

Call it the curse of the exile: dislocation, the breaking of life into two unequal parts. There is the first life, the one the exile took for granted--extended family, close friends and perhaps influence in their homeland. Then there is the makeshift existence of exile, built on fabricated foundations and nurtured by the prospect of return. It's the dream for many, though as the years pass, going home can be unexpectedly disorienting, for it again means leaving a relatively familiar place to return to one that has changed. Home is, in a sense, always somewhere else.

Los Angeles is a renowned receptacle for those escaping the jaws of history. A sense of familiarity draws them most, because exiles, by nature, are forced into an alien world. "People look for something close to their own countries," says Chilean-born emigre Jose Quiroga. "Anything you want, from anywhere, you can find it here."

Many live in silence. One African man details a horrific escape from his country. Later, he calls the interviewer and says he's afraid to have his story told--even anonymously. A Vietnamese American woman tearfully explains that her intriguing experiences as a student here in the' 60s protesting the Vietnam War is "not worthy" of publication because it paled in comparison to those of millions back home. Four Iranians who wielded power until the 1979 fall of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi refuse interviews for fear they would endanger themselves and their families in Los Angeles.

Five exiles, however, do share their stories. For them, Los Angeles is at once a symbol of their rootlessness and their haven. They remain determined to overcome linguistic and economic travails and adapt to a world of new rules. This is not easy, particularly as they continue to listen for echoes of their former lives.

Royalty in Exile

Cambodian Prince Norodom Sirivudh's quest to promote reforms to Cambodia's authoritarian government often leads him to Cambodian Buddhist temples, such as the simple two-story structure just west of downtown on Beverly Boulevard. At the temple's resplendent shrines, the prince is handed an envelope stuffed with cash, and a saffron-robed monk offers moral and spiritual support. A flock of elderly widows with shaved heads and angelic white gowns adoringly shadows the prince's movements like some geriatric secret service group.

Minutes later, as Sirivudh, 48, heads to the freeway, the women remain in the parking lot, still waving to where he was. Those silent matriarchs transposed from the swamp-grass meadows of Cambodia's lush countryside to the City of Angels are like guardians for the prince's wandering soul. For three years, such rites are the closest Sirivudh gets to home.

If exile were a job, Sirivudh would be a pro. Few princes would spend weeks at a time in a cousin's spare bedroom in the suburbs--which he good-naturedly refers to as the "Fontana palace"--while courting their Americanized compatriots. But that deliberately un-royal approach serves him well. "I prefer to adapt myself because that is what Cambodians here are waiting for," he says. "If you act like a prince, really prince-like, they will say, 'What the hell do we care?' " Even if some of the estimated 50,000 Cambodian-Americans in Long Beach wonder whether royalty remains relevant on the cusp of a new millennium, they offer support for his efforts to return to Cambodia and effect change. At one fund-raiser, more than 300 supporters, few of whom are wealthy, donate a total of $5,000.

If Sirivudh is good at being in exile, it might be because it's not new to him. His first exile lasted more than 20 years, beginning soon after the 1970 U.S.-backed overthrow of his half-brother, King Norodom Sihanouk. That time, Sirivudh fled to a working-class existence in France, where he studied, washed dishes and became a member of a leftist political party. Eventually, he focused his activism on Cambodia and returned. His royal ties and charisma soon propelled him to a top spot in the Royalist political party and to the post of foreign minister in an unruly coalition government in 1993. Then strongman Hun Sen, now prime minister, began consolidating his power. In 1995, tanks surrounded Sirivudh's house and government officials threatened the prince with prison on a trumped-up charge of plotting to murder Hun Sen. Once again, the prince fled.

He spent much of last year using Los Angeles as his base in the States. On one flight back to Los Angeles, he was greeted by two teenage girls wearing traditional Khmer garb, with purple flowers streaking their hair. Yet when they spoke, the voices were those of Valley girls. So quickly had the prince adapted to the Cambodian American cultural hybrid, however, that he seemed not to notice.

"I thank the Cambodians who have confidence in me [but] I can't think I am the center of the world," he says. It is a sober assessment from a man once known as the "playboy-prince." Earlier this year, after three years in exile, Hun Sen allowed the prince to return, albeit in a less-threatening capacity. Sirivudh is keeping his distance from politics, focusing instead on humanitarian work, in King Sihanouk's name, performing duties less likely to lead to a third exile. Asked about security concerns in Hun Sen's domain, the prince suggests that the end of exile is worth the risk. "You must believe in destiny."

The Ultimate Exile

Amid the mass protests and riots sweeping Tehran in 1978 and the brutal response of Iran's U.S.-backed government, Karim Kaghazi knew the end was coming; he just didn't know how soon. Karim, a high-ranking justice ministry official who met with Iran's shah twice annually, sent his wife Pooran, son Mano and daughter Mitra to Los Angeles. He planned to follow soon. But when Islamic revolutionaries seized power Feb 11, 1979, communications between Iran and the United States were cut.

"Everything had been turned upside down," Mano recounts. "They grabbed ministers and generals and threw them in prison." His family didn't know it at the time, but Karim had been jailed, even lined up for execution. His captors opened fire but the bullets never came. They were blanks, used purely to terrorize. After seven months, the family learned that Karim had been hospitalized following a heart attack. Mano, who ran a gas station during the day and drove a tow truck at night, told his new, 18-year-old wife, Katherine, that he needed to find his father.

"I had no choice," he says. Katherine joined him on the journey into the head winds of history, and they arrived in Iran in mid-October, 1979. At the airport, they were met by a frail man they did not recognize--until they looked closely. It was Karim, weakened by another heart attack after gunmen had terrorized others in his extended family. "He was so skinny, so old," Mano says. "I walked right by him. When I looked at my father, I couldn't breathe."

After a week of reunion and celebration, they headed to the U.S. Embassy for a visa. But the political climate had become wildly unstable. Some 10,000 people massed near the embassy seeking visas. As an American, Katherine was able to get herself and Karim inside, and they picked up his visa the next day. Just one day later, revolutionary students stormed the embassy and took its occupants hostage--the beginning of what would be a 444-day hostage crisis. At that point, Westerners were forbidden to leave Iran. Karim was free to go, but Katherine was trapped.

Mano searched for help, ending up at the airport, where thousands futilely sought escape. "I don't know if it was a miracle or what, but people pushed, the door opened and suddenly about 200 of us were inside the immigration office," Mano says. There he spied an old friend, to whom he offered anything he had to get Katherine out. The friend's reply: I will help, and in return I ask you to join my family for dinner. They did so, and escaped the next day.

The joy of reunion in Los Angeles faded as Karim's trauma became clear. "He was happy to be with the family but he became depressed," Mano says. "He stayed at home, afraid of his shadow." Within two years, at age 59, the exiled Karim died of another heart attack.

Karim had always told his son, whose full name is Manouchehr, that he would one day be responsible for the family. While Mano, now 52, maintains that mantle with pride, he refuses to be as fearful as many Iranians who, like his father, fled the revolution. "I know so many generals here with a hard life. They lived like kings over there--with maids, mansions, chauffeurs--and now they are taxi drivers [or] they have to go pump gas. I know guys who worry someone is going to come and kill them 20 years after the fact. Twenty years, can you believe it?"

The Making of a Dissident

An admired and articulate voice in the Chinese American community, Shanghai-born engineer Chris Wu has fashioned 20 years of political dissidence into a better life in Los Angeles. After a 10-year stint in China's armed forces, the young idealist returned to university life as a student and instructor in 1959 amid a trying time. Food was so scarce that malnutrition sent him to the hospital, where he learned the extent of the mass starvation raking the country.

He began to break from the Communist Party. "I started asking why the Communist [Party] was so bad. I wanted to discuss [problems] with the political leaders of my university." Not only did Wu find them uninterested in such discussions, but overzealous school agents trying to "purify" their Cultural Revolution placed him under house arrest in 1967. "They were cleaning my mind. Because I was not a member of the Chinese Communist Party, I did not handle money, I did not hold political power. There was only my mind."

He escaped but was soon caught and sent to prison, where he was choked, nearly to death, with a chain for communicating with another prisoner. During the three years he languished awaiting trial, his face became "so pale it looked like a white wall," and his leg muscles atrophied so much that he could barely stand. He was convicted along with tens of thousands of others at a mass trial and sentenced to 20 years of forced labor for counterrevolutionary crimes. Few would rejoice over backbreaking toil, but Wu did. "I was very happy. I could see the sunshine and the sky. Oh, my God, I could improve my physical [health]!" A year later, he was moved to a manufacturing camp for eight more years until the Cultural Revolution ended and some of its worst injustices were redressed. "They said, 'I'm sorry.' That is all. But they didn't want to give me back my salary or my [university] position."

The government did give him a visa to leave China in July, 1980, so that he could join his sister, who had moved to Los Angeles a decade earlier. Here, Wu changed his name to Chris Wu from Wu Chin Fan. He struggled with cultural adjustments and to learn English. Even "the hobbies are totally different," he says. Ultimately, however, he earned a master's degree from Cal State L.A., landing an engineering job with Xerox.

Now 63, Wu is living in comfortable retirement along with his Taiwanese-born wife and two children. His main "hobby" remains his activism, which includes meetings with international dissidents, organizing conferences and protests, writing articles and acting as a liaison among different ethnic Chinese groups. While promoting political change for China may be a slow and rocky process, Wu seems to have found a certain peace. "I like living in Los Angeles. I traveled to a lot of areas in the U.S., and L.A. is the best area for me. The weather, the Chinese culture, the diversity; there is a lot that fits my requirements."

The Revolutionary

Mario Velasquez's exile a quarter-century ago was rooted in two realizations: his wealthy family lived well amid El Salvador's poverty and his father was "the architect" of the government's death squads.

"There were people in the countryside who literally had nothing to eat and no homes. I began to see the contradictions. I began to question myself, my family: Who are we? It was a difficult transition for me to realize I was a foreigner in my own country, that we had more than most people had," he says. "My friends had parents who woke up and operated on someone or ran construction companies. My [dad's] job was to control the military dictatorship in the country."

Velasquez quietly joined the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front--a rebel movement that fought the very army his father helped run--and began supplying information to his comrades. Amazingly, he still lived with his family, although his father began to have suspicions about his activities. Then the rebels asked him if he might be willing to help kill his father. He says he recognized that the assassination would help the country, but he refused. "I said, 'This is sick, man. Don't ask me to do it. I can't stop you. I'm not going to stand in the way.' " At the rebels' suggestion, the 20-year-old later left the country to study in the United States.

Over the ensuing years, he took classes in Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, and traveled frequently. He became a student activist and, later, a U.S. citizen by marriage. The activism, coupled with his life in El Salvador and his studies at UCLA, where he earned a bachelor's degree in political science, "totally radicalized me. [But] what was foremost in my mind was the ultimate future of the country where I was born."

Following the outbreak of full-scale civil war in 1980 and a huge increase in U.S. military aid to the Salvadoran government, Velasquez overcame lingering distrust among rebels still bothered by his family name and became the rebels' U.S. spokesman, working primarily to alter U.S. foreign policy. After several satisfying years, however, a falling out with a faction of the rebel leadership left him adrift and fearful of retaliation by the government or rebels. "I had left everything behind--my home, my family, my friends--so when [the rebels] got rid of me, I had no place to go. I had no protection, no money, nothing."

He eventually settled in Los Angeles, in 1984, where he lived with friends until he found a job as "just another Hispanic" substitute teacher. Later, he worked with a L.A.-based group that sought medical treatment for Salvadoran civilians trapped by the war and hired young Jody Williams, who later won a Nobel Peace Prize for her role in the international crusade against land mines. While the sometimes grim work often sent Velasquez back to the Salvadoran border, it wasn't until 1989 that, calculating correctly that his humanitarian badge would protect him from his high-profile rebel past, he flew in through San Salvador's airport rather than entering overland from neighboring countries.

Ironically, returning home after nearly half a lifetime didn't bring the relief he had hoped for. "When I go to El Salvador, I am excited because I go home. And then, when I am there, I miss home. It is a weird, very strange catharsis."

A 1992 peace agreement ended the war, which claimed approximately 75,000 Salvadoran lives and gobbled up more than $1 billion in U.S. military aid. Still, Velasquez, 45, is upset that the root cause of the civil war, crushing economic inequality, endures. "That brings me full circle to my decision to work with homeless people in the U.S.," he says of his current position as director of development for Homeless Healthcare Los Angeles, which aims to move drug addicts and other homeless people "from a cardboard box to a job."

Remarried and the father of a 19-year-old Salvadoran American son, he is finally putting down roots here. "Los Angeles has become home for me. This is where I live, where my wife lives, where I think I am going to die."

A Pathway Through the Scars

Dr. Jose Quiroga uses scars to help people move from torturous pasts to better lives in the United States. As the volunteer director of the Venice-based Torture Rehabilitation Program, he documents physical evidence of abuse to support immigrants' asylum requests. Quiroga, a cardiologist, understands that such work grew out of his experiences during and after the brutal military coup against his former patient, Chilean President Salvador Allende. "Human-rights work came as a consequence of [my] experiences. It was a way to integrate the human rights and medicine together," he explains.

This revelation came last year when Quiroga, 68, reunited with former colleagues to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the coup and clarify what occurred. On Sept. 11, 1973, Quiroga was among the faithful summoned to the governing palace, La Moneda, even as mutinous forces loyal to Gen. Augusto Pinochet began moving to depose Allende, who refused to begin a full-scale civil war by calling for the masses who elected him to rise up in his defense.

"He was trying to defend the symbol [of La Moneda] because there was no way he was going to defend himself" militarily, Quiroga says. The army attacked with tanks, machine guns, tear gas and, later, assault infantry, forcing room-by-room battles with the few Allende supporters present. Within hours, rocket attacks and resulting fires caused Allende to consider giving up. But even as Quiroga and others prepared a flag of surrender, the ever-composed Allende slipped away from the group. Numbed by the day's assault, Quiroga didn't even hear the gunshot, although, through a doorway, he saw the president put the gun to his head. "Before any of us could react, or enter his quarters," Quiroga wrote 25 years later, "his face [was] erased and he disappeared from my sight. All of us felt, in that instant, a tremendous and profound anguish in our chests."

The survivors were captured and repeatedly threatened with immediate execution, including by means of a revving tank that could crush them where they lay in the street in front of the palace. Although a soldier fractured two of Quiroga's ribs for pausing to observe the damage from the coup, the doctor was fortunate. "We were divided into three groups. The doctors were separated and freed immediately because they were seen as neutral. Some high-ranking politicians and ministers were taken to the Ministry of Defense, and the rest, all the rest, were taken to a military garrison. Most of them were killed the following day."

They were among the more than 3,000 Chileans executed during and following the coup, while another 2,000 are believed to have "disappeared." While Quiroga's colleagues never conspired to repress their account of his death, none discussed it publicly until their collective account was published in Spain last year. "Those of us who could not cry in that moment, as an expression of a profound sorrow, we are doing it now while writing these memories," Quiroga wrote in his contribution.

Fearful and facing increasing harassment under the Pinochet regime, Quiroga secured an associate researcher position at UCLA and brought his wife and three young children along for what he thought would be a brief sojourn. That was 22 years ago. "Basically we had to create a social network here where there was none for Chileans. And eventually, they began to get strength, knowledge, work, English, and we were able to survive quite well."

While he has frequently returned to Chile for brief visits and become something of a leading activist within Los Angeles' relatively small Chilean American community, Quiroga suggests that an exile's two lives can never be entirely reconciled. "The kids have grown up abroad. It is impossible to go back with them. You are basically lost. You try to rediscover your country. You lose your family if you go back, and you lose all your friends if you stay here. You can't win. It is funny because you always think that this is a transition period, that you are going to go back. Slowly you realize that the more time you remain here, the more difficult it will be to [leave]. I never in my life thought to emigrate. I always thought I would leave for a short period. This wasn't my plan in life, never."

Eric Pape's most recent reporting posts were with the Cambodia Daily and the Phnom Penh Post. He now lives in Venice, Calif. [see his clips]