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."
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."
Kunrath 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."
"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.