For children of refugees, the idea of “home” can be hard to put into words. Just ask poet Hatefas “Hati” Yop, an American-born Cham Muslim, what it’s like to feel nostalgic for a place you’ve never been to. Sitting in a booth at Lantern Grill in Santa Ana, she sips her drink and flips through the pages of a thick paperback book. Her burgundy “Made by Refugees” shirt declares to onlookers that her parents survived a war, and she is here to tell the tale.
Yop‘s parents met at a refugee camp in Cambodia during the Cambodian Civil War. When they were sponsored to flee to California, they arrived on Minnie Street, a Santa Ana neighborhood that has become well-known for its Cambodian community. “A large wave of the Cambodian folks here in Orange County are refugees that survived the war back in 1974,” Yop says. “Also, there are folks that migrated after the war.”
As early as 1986, the LA Times reported on Minnie Street being one of the largest Cambodian Cham communities in the United States. Her mother used to have her blue troquita parked along Minnie Street, selling snacks to Latinx and Cambodian folks passing by.
At school, Yop says she was often one of the only Asian students in her classes. “Sometimes I would get picked on,” Yop recalls. “I would want to pack some of the foods that my mom made the night before, and it’s different because a lot of the Latino kids didn’t know what fish sauce was.” Although Yop felt “othered” at times, she was able to create a bridge between the two cultures through friendship and solidarity. “I’m really grateful and really blessed that I did make friends that embraced me for who I was and also helped me learn about their culture,” Yop says.
Yop’s first foray into spoken word poetry came during her years as a high school student at Godinez High School in Santa Ana. She joined the Cambodian Family, a grassroots nonprofit supporting refugee and immigrant families in the city. They encouraged her to write and perform poetry, and the first time she performed at an open mic was during one of their youth organized high school conferences. “It wasn’t until I became involved with the Cambodian Family that I was exposed to what performance poetry was and what it meant to hear your poetry out loud,” she says. Nearly a decade later, she is now working there as a youth organizer with a focus on mental wellness.
Children of diaspora often have to find other ways of going home that don’t involve expensive plane tickets and trips across the world, and Yop does just that through her poetry and community organizing. In her first self-published chapbook, For My Mother, Yop explores her religion as a Muslim woman, desire and sexuality, family and despair through nine poems split into three sections: 19 & Depressed, Seeking Love, and Family. “I wrote things within those poems that I never had the courage to tell my parents,” Yop says. Her mother and sister passed away within a few short years of each other; Yop never had the chance to read her poetry to her mother. “My mom came here illiterate,” Yop remembers. “She didn’t know how to read or write in English or her native language, and I wanted to honor the many stories that she shared with me.”
“hearing dad say / I love you / is like mangos / during the winter / difficult to come across / but once / in the palm of your hands- / the sweet loving nectar, / you don’t want to let go.” — “Father’s Unspoken Love”
Yop majored in Ethnic Studies at UC Riverside in 2015 when she decided to create a chapbook rather than study for finals. She hand-sewed the first twenty copies of For My Mother as they popped out of her own personal printer. But when it kept jamming, she spent about $200 to print 100 copies somewhere else. Yop only worked a part time job at the time, so $200 was a good chunk of her paycheck, but it was a small price to pay to immortalize her family’s stories. “I didn’t get the opportunity to always get to hear stories of happiness from my mother,” Yop says. And because her mother couldn’t write those stories down, Yop feels it is her responsibility to record them. “I realized how necessary it is to keep my family’s story alive because I feel like not every family is blessed to have a storyteller,” she says.
At open mics across LA and OC, Yop performed spoken word poetry and sold For My Mother to diverse crowds. Many of these events were organized by people of color, such as Sunday Jump in LA’s Historic Filipino Town, Common Ground in Santa Ana, Tuesday Night Cafe in LA’s Little Tokyo, and A Country Called Syria in Anaheim’s Little Arabia.
— 18MR.org (@18millionrising) October 12, 2017
As Yop finishes her degree in Asian American Studies at Cal State Long Beach, she is working on her second book, Confessions of a Struggling Muslim, which will debut in 2019. “It’s to highlight that not all Muslims are perfect,” Yop says. “Perfection, in Islam , is what exists in the afterlife.” Confessions of a Struggling Muslim will break mainstream media’s monolithic view of Muslims, just as For My Mother does, and explore the complexities of being someone who is struggling and thriving and everything else in between. Her new poetry book will come out two years after President Trump first attempted his notorious Muslim Ban.
Even though she’s never been to Cambodia, Yop still finds home within Santa Ana. She finds it in the comfort of her father, the ever present love of her mother, and her family’s resilient laughter. “I feel like there’s still a lot I need to learn about Cambodia,” Yop says. “Once I breath that air and feel what that air is like, then I’ll be able to call it my homeland.”