Chansavang Anouthai spent his childhood working in the rice fields of his father’s farm along the banks of the Mekong River in Champasak, Laos. Late one night in 1979, his father left behind his wife and 11 other children and took Anouthai and his older brother across the Mekong River, never to return.
Anouthai was just one of many children uprooted when the Laotian Civil War disrupted their families’ lives forever.
“We had to leave because of the Communists,” Anouthai said. “My father worked for the government in Laos and we could not stay there because they were on to us.”
Many Laotians were forced to flee their homeland in the late 1970s and early 1980s in fear of imprisonment or execution at the hands of the Pathet Lao, a communist political organization primarily equipped and directed by the North Vietnamese army. Some still live in poverty at the few refugee camps that remain in Thailand. Others were killed or imprisoned by the soldiers of Thailand while attempting to cross the Mekong River.
In 1975, the Pathet Lao seized control of the government of Laos following years of civil war that began in 1962. Many Laotians who fled the country worked for or remained loyal to the Royal Lao Government that had ruled the Kingdom of Laos since 1947.
It was more than a year later that Anouthai and his brother made it across the mountains of Thailand to the Ubon refugee camp with help from Buddhist monks. Their father never made it.
“My dad passed away in the mountains; he was sixty and he was sick,” Anouthai said. It was difficult to find food and medical care. Anouthai said his father was too weak to survive the conditions.
Anouthai and his brother eventually made it to the United States where they spent years being shifted between foster homes around Detroit. They later learned that the rest of their family escaped Laos and had been resettled in Texas.
Khamtanh Sayavong was 11 when her 23-year-old brother Panh Phommaluth dove into the Mekong River alone to take his chances with the armed soldiers that guarded the banks on Thailand’s side of the river.
“They always had guards along the Mekong River, because back at that time they know what’s going on, they expect people coming constantly.” Phommaluth explains while Sayavong translates. “It is very difficult to get across.”
Sayavong, the youngest of the Phommaluth family left with her parents three years later in 1983.
“We escaped,” she said. “If you get caught by anyone leaving the country then you get in trouble. You could end up in jail, who knows? My dad actually had to pay someone to bring us over… it was how we got across.”
Phommaluth found his way through Thailand to one of the many refugee camps. He was eventually sponsored for relocation and ended up in Dallas, where he worked for $3.10 an hour at a framing factory until he was able to sponsor the relocation of Phommaluth and their parents.
These families eventually made their way to Holland, Mich. where they currently work and raise families of their own. Anouthai and his wife own and operate Chan’s Martial Arts Studio; Sayavong and her husband own the Oriental Foods DB INT’L Market where Phommaluth works as a cashier.
“We were the fortunate ones,” said Sayavong.
C.W.Benson is a freelance writer at Macatawa Publishing Services in Holland, Michigan.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org