Refugee Americans: Our Story

Refugee Americans: Our Story

My family and I are refugees.  I was born in Laos in July of 1976.  The Vietnam War just ended in 1975 when the US left.  When the US left, the VC came marching in.  What a lot of people do not realize is that a lot of the war took place in Laos.  Laos was bombarded by VC and US used parts of Laos as bases of operation.  The Lao Army supported the US so when the US left, they were left to defend for themselves.  I had uncles in the Army that support US operations.  When the war ended for the US, they had to keep fighting the Communist regime.  When the Communist Party won, many changed their names and went into hiding.  We still have family back in Laos, living under alias.

By the time I was born, the Communist Party was already in control.  I was pretty young, but I do remember seeing the VC parading up and down our road.  My father was a teacher at the local school.  Each town had its own school with one instructor that taught all the kids.  My mom owned and ran a jewelry shop at the local market.  We also had a plantation with many types of fruits, but my father was ready to give all this up to escape the Communist Party.  The Communist Party quickly took over Laos, and Cambodia followed.

The Communist Party hated The West and blamed them for all of the problems.  If you believe in Western ideas or even worse, teaching them, you were their enemy.  If they declare you as an enemy you were lucky to just be thrown in prison without a trial.  Death was a worse and more familiar fate.

What you are about to read is the memories of a 3-year-old, so some things are hazy but the impact is still there.  Sometime around 1979, our dad came up with a way to get us out of the country.  He came up with this plan in secrecy.  He did not even share his plan with my mom.  He had to be secretive because if anyone caught wind of his plans, it could mean the end for him.

Our dad was watching us one day.  It was a scorching hot summer day.  I can visualize being on a dirt road, and it was my baby sister, my older brother, me, and our father walking down the road.  I was barely 3 years old.  A truck suddenly pulled up and the guy driving yelled at my dad.  My dad yelled back, looked at us, and told us to stay put.  “Just stay here — someone will pick you up and take you home.”  He jumped into the back of the truck and he was gone.  Our auntie saw us on the road by ourselves a few hours later and took us home.  I am not sure how long we waited but for a 3-year-old, it felt like an eternity.

No one knew where he had gone off to.  He did not tell anyone that he was leaving.  No one knew if he was coming back.  My mom thought he abandoned us.

Days went by and no word from our father.  Weeks went by and still not a peep from our dad.  Weeks turned into months and every day seemed longer than the last.  Finally, my mom received a letter from him.  He was in Thailand.  He sold everything we owned, the jewelry store, the house, and the land were all sold, and most of that money was already spent to get us out of Laos.  My mom was left in the dark on everything.  She was told to be ready to leave on short notice.  Pack only what we can carry, which was not much since she had a 1-year-old, 3-year-old, and 5-year-old to also care for.

We lived with our auntie and family.  They were all supposed to leave with us but when the coyotes arrived they demanded more money to take everyone.  We did not have more money to give so only my older cousin, Sunny, was able to come along with us.  It was in the middle of the night, and there was someone banging on the door.  We were told that we did not have much time.  We had to gather our stuff and we had to hurry.  There was a truck out front and it looked just like the one that our father jumped into a few months back.  We were told to jump in the back and stay quiet.  And this was the abrupt start to our journey.

In the back of the truck, there were others.  I do not remember all of them but a Vietnamese woman and her baby always sticks out in my mind.  I used to have dreams of her and her baby when I was younger.  Her baby was still an infant and was sick.  The baby was coughing and crying the whole truck ride.  I am not sure how far the truck took us or how long the ride took because I must have slept most of the way.

I remember waking up and we were at the edge of the jungle.  We were all rushed out of the truck and into the jungle.  We spent a few nights in the jungle hiding and slowly travelling.  The further we went, the more soldiers were out there patrolling.  At some point during our journey, the baby would not stop crying and was getting louder.  Because the baby would not stop crying, the coyotes made the woman and her baby leave the group.  The woman pleaded and cried while begging to stay with the group.  The men did not let her stay with the group.  To this day, I wonder what ever happened to her and the baby.  I try to tell myself that she made it out and was reunited with her husband but reality makes me doubt that.  About the half-way point, I remember everyone huddled up in an underground hole or cave.  It was not that deep underground because we could hear soldiers patrolling above us.  If we could hear them, then they would have heard us even if one person coughed.

Finally, we got to the Mekong River.  The sun was starting to come up and everyone was in a rush.  I remember a boat that had ropes attached to the front and back of it.  It was a small row boat with no paddles.  The boat had holes in it.  When our turn came up, we all got in.  My mother, baby sister, older brother, cousin, and me.  My cousin was holding my sister.  My mom was watching me and my brother.  They gave my brother and I bowls to scoop water out of the boat as they dragged us across the river.  This was very scary to our mom since she swims as well as a rock, and she along with her children and niece was being dragged across the river in a row boat with no ores and filled with holes.  By the time, we got to the other side, the sun was up, and another truck was waiting for us.  It was the longest couple nights of my life, but this was only the beginning of our journey.  We escaped Laos.  My parents left the country where they grew up and loved forever.  They never got to see their parents when they passed.  They had brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles pass away and they were not able to go back and say good-bye.  This was the start of our new life, and my parents had already given up so much.

From the Mekong River, the truck took us to a refugee camp where our father was waiting for us.  We spent a little less than 2 years in a couple of refugee camps in Thailand and the Philippines.  I have faint memories of the camps.  I only remember that the last one that we were at had all these unfinished building on the base.  It was like an unfinished military base.  All the buildings only had 3 walls and a roof, but we were living in them.  Some stayed there for years but our family was only there for a few months.   I remember running with my older brother to the truck when they came to deliver food.  I do not remember much else about the refugee camps.

I can remember my flight to the US.  My parents were definitely frightened of the unknown.  They were so nervous that they did not let us touch anything.  They kept smacking me and my brother for trying to use the headphones.  For all of us, it was our first time in an airplane, and my parents did not know what awaited them on the other end.  I recall a conversation that I had with my mom on the airplane as it was landing in St. Louis, MO.

“Mom, look at all the toy cars down there.”

“I see them,” she said.

“Can you buy me one when we land!”

“I will buy you anything you want,” she replied nervously. “Just stay still and be quiet for now.”

When we landed, I wondered where all the toy cars went.

When we landed in St. Louis, it was the middle of winter.  There was over a foot of snow on the ground, and seeing snow and being so cold for the first time was indescribable.  Our dad had relatives in St. Louis that sponsored us, along with a Baptist Church.  The church gave us clothes and food.  I guess back then they did not care if my family were Buddhists or non-Christians.  They helped because they saw us as humans with no particular race or religion.  They did not call us commies or gooks.  They just saw us as humans that needed help.  They gave me an old pair of cowboy boots that I used to love.  I may have worn those boots for about 3 years straight.  We landed in St. Louis in the middle of winter in 1981.  I was 4-½ years old and they allowed me to start kindergarten.  My brother started 1st grade and my sister stayed home with my mom.  Our cousin stayed with us for a while but eventually moved to Rochester, NY, where her older siblings lived.

Life in St. Louis was not perfect.  Our dad was attacked on a public bus once.  He said that a couple men were calling him chink, gook, commie, Charlie, etc.…  One man threatened to kill him.  They said he was here taking their jobs.  I seriously doubt that since my dad at the time was working at a restaurant as a dishwasher, and there were many other restaurants looking for dishwashers as well.  The first year was when my family needed the most assistance.  My dad was supporting 5 people by working as a dishwasher at a couple of restaurants.  After the first year, my sister started school, and my mom was able to go get a job as a seamstress.  We did not grow up in the best part of the city.  In fact, our family knows its way around the worst part of St. Louis City pretty well.

We were not as well off as we were in Laos, but my dad thought we were better off in life.  Both him and my mom worked minimum wage jobs while raising 3 young children.  We always saw our parents working hard.  In less than a handful of years, we were off welfare and no longer in need of food stamps.  My dad eventually found a job as a machinist because he was no longer able to teach.  He was no longer able to do what he loved, but he worked hard to give his family life with limitless possibilities.  Any certificates or accreditations he had were gone.  When I was in middle school, we sponsored our uncle and his family.  Eight years into our new life in St. Louis, my parents were able to buy a home in a small Irish neighborhood.  It was not the biggest house, but buying it was when they were most proud.  They felt like the American dream was most real at that point.  They were working hard and saving up.  They always paid their bills and paid back any loans that they took out.

We were made fun of growing up.  We were called racist names.  We wore secondhand clothing and did not have many toys, but we had each other.  We did not get Christmas presents or new school clothes every year, but we were fed and raised to respect all people.

Starting in middle school, after our cousin was also in St. Louis, we all started collecting aluminum cans for money.  My older brother, my older cousin, and I were dumpster divers.  We were a three-man recycling team.  Three to five times a week, we would go dumpster diving for cans.  I bought my first gaming system — the very first Nintendo — with those cans.  We became masters at Super Mario.  I remember running across the street to tell my friend when I beat the game.  It was exciting times.  We were taught that if you want anything, you had to work for it.  I bought my own BMX bicycle with aluminum can money.  As soon as I was old enough to acquire a work permit, I got one.  I have been paying taxes since I was 14 years old.

We did not attend any special school.  We all picked up English pretty fast.  Our parents spoke Lao to us at home, and we spoke English at school.  We all attended public schools.  All three of us graduated high school with honors.  We were all National Honor Society Members.  My older brother, Vinnie, went to work after high school.  He became a machinist.  He learned different skills and today he runs his own successful small business fabricating countertops.  I went straight to college but dropped out to join the US Navy.  I was young and did not know if the major I picked was going to be right for me.  I served 6 years, took part in 3 deployments and separated with honors.  Today, I am a radar technician for Lockheed Martin and I still work closely with our US Navy and other Aegis system facilities.  My younger sister finished high school and graduated from college in 3 years.  After a short stint of being a stay-at-home mom, she went back to work in the commercial real estate field.  Today she owns and runs her own company.  She is on her way to becoming a real-estate mogul.

We are not perfect people.  We all made our mistakes.  And through all the struggles and obstacles, we persevered and became positive members of this country.  I proudly served my country.  I have been paying taxes to my country since I was old enough to work.  I am a refugee and I have given more than I have taken from this great country.  Most refugees and immigrants do not want to leave their home country.  They are leaving out of necessity, and in some cases, it is a life-and-death situation.  So before you judge every immigrant and refugee based off a few bad people, get to know us.  We are your neighbors.  We are your classmates.  We are your coworkers.  We are all humans that want the same thing as you.  We just want the opportunity to prove our worth.  I always think back to my conversation with my mom on that plane.  When she told me that she would give me anything I wanted, I believed she really meant it.  She wanted me to have the chance to have anything I wanted.  She wanted me to be able to choose my own path and make my own decisions.

Refugees are not all terrorists and immigrants are not all drug dealers.  They are just people who want a better life for themselves and their children.  We cannot pick where we are born or what religion our parents practice.  We cannot help or save everyone, but we can still care enough to try.  Banning a whole race of people is not only wrong.  It is inhumane.  This is not what I want my America to be known as to the rest of the world.  When we accept immigrants and refugees, we are investing in America’s future.  Some of our greatest Americans were immigrants and refugees.  We cannot let fear control how we run this country.  Letting fear determine our action is more detrimental to the US than what any terrorist can do.  We are limiting America’s potential and going against the foundation and beliefs of the founding fathers of this great country.


[images via Facebook]

Jhoi Vorachack

Jhoi Vorachack