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Votes

Immigrant Experience Guides Success

Delegate Mark L. Keam

Del. Mark Keam (D-35) is the first Korean American and the first Asian-born immigrant to serve in the Virginia General Assembly. In November 2009, Keam was elected to an open seat in the House of Delegates and re-elected in November 2011. Keam, 46, currently serves on the House Education and Finance Committees, and is co-chair of the Legislative Tourism Caucus. Keam sat for a series of interviews with Connection reporter Victoria Ross in his Vienna office in December. Here is Keam’s story, mostly in his own words.

For new Americans, life is hard, but once they overcome those barriers, they are stronger and they contribute so much because they fought so hard to get here. I’m proud of my background. The policies I advocate for are from the perspective of an immigrant, something which is sorely missing in Richmond. As an immigrant who came here with nothing, I’m able to have everything I ever wanted, to give my children incredible opportunities.

Let me put it this way, unlike most people whose immigration stories are fairly simple, (for example, they move from one country to another country), I lived in four different countries and several different cities. I guess you could say I was the result of global circumstances beyond my control.

My parents met in the late 1950s. They had lost their parents during the war, so I didn’t know any of my grandparents. My mother had an older sister, who was a devout Christian. She didn’t like my father.

My parents were like street kids after the Korean war. My mother didn’t finish school and my father was sort of a rogue. The only way my aunt would let him approach my mother was to prove he was upstanding citizen, so he became a minister.

In 1961, there was mandatory conscription in the military, so Keam’s father was sent to Vietnam as a chaplain.

My father would come back at least once every two years. My brother was born in 1962, my sister was born in 1964 and I was born in 1966. In 1969, he came back to Seoul, and he wanted to set up a church. But Korea was still very run-down post war. Imagine Afghanistan, imagine that scenario. Korea was like Afghanistan times two. No running water, all the buildings were bombed, everything was devastated, being run by dictators. It’s only 50 miles from DMZ. That was the world I was born into.

THE WAR IN VIETNAM was at a standstill, a lot of countries started establishing ties in South Vietnam, so they asked my father, who had studied Vietnamese language and culture, to establish a Korean church and community center. We lived in the church, and I remember the building well.

This goes directly into how I got into politics. From the time I was 4 years old, I can’t remember one meal we had with just the five of us. Our meals were with whoever was at the church. For the 5,000 Koreans who lived in Vietnam in the 70s, every one of them came to our church because it was also the only community center. It was the hub of all Korean activities. From the time I woke up until I went to bed, there were always people around us.

When I was a small kid, I freaked out because we had caskets. I remember there’d be a wedding in the morning, a funeral in the middle of the day, and another wedding at night. You’d see the same people dressed up for a wedding and then back for a funeral, because they knew each other. I lived in that world with the idea that community helps each other. It was ingrained in me such a natural way that I think, to this day, that’s the core of my being. What made me who I am and what made me think the way I do and act the way I do every single day was molded in my childhood. More importantly, because of my father, I saw it was incumbent upon us to be leaders in our community. Family is important, but community is just as important. So that has led me to do what I’m doing today.

When Keam was 9 years old, in April of 1975, he recalls his family fleeing the church compound during what historians call the Fall of Saigon. The capture of Saigon by the People's Army of Vietnam and the National Liberation Front marked the end of the Vietnam War and the start of a transition period leading to the formal reunification of Vietnam into a communist state.The fall of the city was preceded by the evacuation of almost all the American civilian and military personnel in Saigon, along with tens of thousands of South Vietnamese civilians associated with the southern regime. The evacuation culminated in Operation Frequent Wind, which was the largest helicopter evacuation in history.

That’s the most traumatic thing that’s ever happened to me. We were playing in the room, and I just remember my mother coming in saying we have to pack up and go.

We had seen a lot of things. Whenever I see war-torn scenes of Libya or Syria, it brings back flashes of memory. I never saw actual tanks roll in, but we heard bombs going off. There were times when we would go through the markets of Vietnam, and we had seen Buddhist monks self-immolating in political protests—just awful.

After seeing things like that, it wasn’t real to us until that day my mom said pack up.

The families at the compound got in the cars, and drove to this little airport. As we’re leaving in the helicopter, we look back and I see my dad standing behind the chicken-wire fence.

KEAM SAID HE EVENTUALLY reconstructed what happened to his father through relative’s stories and his father’s testimony.

My father was stranded on the rooftop and he was arrested by the Viet Cong. He had two marks against him. One was that he was a religious leader in a communist country. Another mark was that he served in the South Korean military, even though he was a chaplain.

We were taken back to Seoul, and there were so many rumors. We heard that my father was killed, or that he was in prison, or that he made it but he’s not coming back. We had absolutely no way to understand this. . . .

When we arrived back in Korea, we had zero, nothing. No one was doing well. My mother found a one-bedroom apartment in Seoul. My mom had never finished high school let alone college. As a woman, she had no way of having meaningful employment, being a single mother with three kids. . . . So my mother went to churches and to ex-military friends and it was those people who supported us, not the government. I never asked her, and she never talks about it, but I believe the only way she fed us every single day is that she begged and went to charities and welfare groups. That was the year I became an adult and lost my childhood innocence.”

KEAM SPOKE ENGLISH AND FRENCH, but not much Korean. Back at school in Seoul, he was bullied and treated as a special-needs student. He said that terrible year transformed him in ways that make him the person he is today.

I preach this all the time, discrimination is discrimination no matter who is doing it to whom. My life’s mission is to fight against discrimination. I am also passionate about literacy. I serve on the board of Virginia Literacy Foundation, a nonprofit founded by former Virginia First Lady Jeannie Baliles to ensure that everyone has essential reading and writing skills they need to succeed.

After what Keam considers the worst year of his life, assuming his father was never coming home, feeling out of place in his native country, his family got another surprise. His father returned home, showing up on their doorstep out of the blue.

“That’s a story for another time, how we eventually got here,” Keam said.

The rest of the story, abridged: After reuniting with his father, Keam’s family then moved to Australia, where his father established another church before eventually moving to California. Keam received a political science degree from the University of California at Irvine, and had a chance to live in Falls Church while working as a college intern. After receiving a law degree from Hastings College of the Law, Keam returned to Virginia where he met and married Alex Seong Keam, also an attorney. The Keams have two children, Tyler, a Cub Scout, and Brenna, a Brownie. Both children attend Mosby Woods Elementary School in Fairfax. As a part-time citizen-legislator, Keam, who is known as the most prolific member of the General Assembly on Twitter @markkeam, maintains a year-round office in Vienna in addition to his Richmond office. When the General Assembly is not in session, Keam serves as senior advisor for strategic affairs at Verizon; he has worked at Verizon since 2007. Before that, for six years, he served as chief counsel to the Assistant Senate Majority Leader Dick Durbin on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Before working on Capitol Hill, Keam worked at the Small Business Administration and had also served as an attorney with the Federal Communications Commission’s Wireless Bureau.