Southeast Asian Refugee Stories
Hung Ngo was born in Saigon, Vietnam, and served as an officer in the South Vietnamese navy. After the South Vietnamese government surrendered to North Vietnamese forces in 1975, he fled the country to avoid going to a labor camp. He escaped with other officers in a boat and was rescued by the US Navy in the South China Sea. He lived in a refugee camp, where he met his wife, before resettling in Minnesota.
"I met my wife at refugee camp when we went to English class and other refugee activities. I had her at my side, actually, she lived in the same refugee camp, so I had somebody to talk [to] when you need to talk to someone. That makes our friendship better and [you] understand more."
"We fled and I used to carry my children. We couldn’t stay in the country anymore. We thought it would be a good idea to try and live in Thailand. We used this to carry our children to a better place in hopes of giving them a better life."
Yeng Xiong talks about the baby carrier she used while she, her husband, and three young children escaped across the Mekong River after the communist takeover of Laos. One of her children died in the turbulent waters.
"Cambodia has been though a lot of difficulty during the time that I grew up. All the time when I grew up, all I remember is running."
Rothana Walbolt was born in Battambang, Cambodia and grew up in Khao I Dang refugee camp in Thailand. She arrived in the United States in 1985, living first in Portland and then in Minnesota, where she is an advocate for local Cambodian communities. She is the executive director and co-founder of M3C, the Minnesota Cambodian Communities Council.
Buntanh Supantavong was a Buddhist monk for twenty years. His family fled Laos after 1975 and lived in Ubon Refugee Camp for several months. They resettled in Rochester, MN where his sponsor, an American doctor who had opened in a clinic in the camp, lived. Buntanh's family lived in Rochester for 16 years before moving to the Twin Cities. He is a Mor Phone, a Buddhist officiant for the Lao community.
“May you live a long life until you are tired of this world. May you be full of beauty and good spirit. May you have happiness. May you have strength that is renown in the world.”
Lao Tan Le
"On the morning of April 30, 1975, I was commanding an Armored Squadron in Vietnam and we were engaged in fighting with the enemy. I heard a government command communication on the radio. It said “Everyone stop fighting, drop your weapons and go home, the war is over.” After I heard that, my head was topsy-turvy and I was downhearted. Many questions appeared, but without answers. All day long I didn’t eat and my body felt drawn. Finally, step by step, I walked home, with my body haggard and worked. From there, my day-to-day life was stressful and nervous as I waited for the result with a thumping heart."
Lao Tan Le commanded an armored squadron for the South Vietnamese army until April 30, 1975. A month later, the communist government placed him and many other South Vietnamese army officers in reeducation camps, where he remained until 1981. After years of surveillance following his release, he and his family resettled in Minnesota in 1994 through the U.S. government’s Orderly Departure Program.
Kunrath Lam and her family lost many relatives to Cambodia's Khmer Rouge. After Vietnam occupied Cambodia, the family hired smugglers to take them through the jungle to a refugee camp in Thailand. Kunrath's family came to Minnesota in 1983. She and her husband established Cheng Heng, the first Cambodian restaurant in St. Paul.
"I do miss home. Whenever I go, I do miss home because that’s where your culture, your language is... And here you feel the same, you belong to here too, thirty years later you feel the same but not the same as home. The real food, the real vegetables that you eat, the temple that you go...When you go there you feel completed. You come here you are lucky, Don’t take it for granted, you are very lucky to be here. You’ll work very, very hard, you’ll try very hard in order to get here, [it's] not easy."
Saengmany Ratsabout reflects on how the history he learned in high school and college was missing “…the narratives and experiences of my family’s immigration story and stories of countless more refugees from Laos.” After fleeing Laos, he and his family spent years in a refugee camp in Thailand as family # 129 337 1-6. Vast amounts of paper document the family’s journey: resettlement forms, fingerprints, medical exams, and the 1986 Northwest Airlines ticket stub that took them from Manila to Seattle, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and finally, to Atlanta.
Manichan Xiong, a Hmong woman now living in Minneapolis, lost her grandfather during the "Secret War" in Laos when communists discovered her family had helped a downed American pilot. She married a Hmong soldier, Colonel Shong Leng Xiong, who also aided the Americans. Later, they assisted another downed American pilot, who returned the next day to thank them with their first Thanksgiving turkeys. She and her family lived in a Thai refugee camp from 1975 to 1993, when they came to the United States.
"I am over 60 now. If I don’t share this, it will die with me and no one will know. Please, love your parents and elders. We hold the pain of missing our country."
Teng Lee, a Hmong refugee, talks aboutthe series of immigration documents he received throughout his life, culminating in his U.S. Certificate of Naturalization. Born in a Thai refugee camp, Teng came to Minnesota in 1988 and applied for U.S. citizenship when he turned nineteen.
"I traded my green card for my Certificate of Naturalization. It was emotional to finally become a citizen of a country. My journey of being stateless and without a country was finally over."
"I interrupted my class when I walked in, returned from an ESL session. Mr. Smith made everyone read out loud, stopping when they want to. No one ever reads more than three sentences from The Cay. They giggled and snickered on my turn. That day, I read two chapters without stopping to breathe. The snickering, ridiculing, and ESL sessions stopped after that.”
Saymoukda Vongsay is an award-winning Lao American poet and playwright. In this story, Saymoukda reflects upon her poem “When Everything Was Everything,” and her experiences growing up as a refugee in different parts of Saint Paul and Minneapolis. The poem earned the 2010 Alfred C. Carey Prize in Spoken Word Poetry.
"When I look at this silver bar, I not only think about the love that was shared between my parents, but I also use it to remind me of my parents’ struggles from one country to another, the cultural values of the Hmong and, most of all, to reflect on myself and to never forget my roots, and to continue the journey that my parents started for me, and then to have my children continue my journey, and their children continue theirs."
After the fall of Saigon, Shue-Qa Moua's family fled Laos across the Mekong River. Her father, a soldier who had fought with the Americans, was briefly separated from her mother and a gave her a silver bar. They were reunited in a Thai refugee camp and came to the United States in 1976, living in California where Shue-Qa was born.
Lisa Fetter's parents met in Saigon, Vietnam and left the country during the Vietnam War. Her parents settled in Minnesota in 1975, where she and her siblings were born and raised. In 2004, she was able to take a family trip to Vietnam and meet her mother’s family.
"I constantly put myself in my mother’s position. What would have it been like to get married at twenty, move away from home, everything you knew, to a completely new country, learn a new language, and having your first child? Even though I don’t know the whole story, I continue to navigate two cultures myself."