I stem from immigrants and the many sacrifices they made to allow me to live the life I have today. My father's family left Laos to come to America when he was five years old. This is his story.
Six children, two parents, and a grandmother lived in Vientiane, Laos when communism began to spread across the country.
They lived a comfortable middle-class life (this would be lower-class compared to America). At school, the kids were taught communist ideology. Their family was closely monitored due to my grandfather's job in the government. The secret police would randomly stop by the house and inspect it. Calls and actions were also taken note of. If there was any suspicion of conspiracy, they could have been subjected to labor camps or death by firing squad. My grandparents were tired of this and knew the danger associated with staying in a country that was slowly being taken over by a powerful government.
My father was just five years old when his mother told him he was not to go to school one morning.
The family was supposedly going to take a trip to see their relatives. He remembers eating an expensive bowl of pho with his brother and mother before packing a small bag to bring with him. That would be their last meal until they reached the next checkpoint. The older siblings knew what was happening, but since he was the youngest, he did not fully understand until much later in life why future events were to unfold.
His parents hired soldiers of fortune which were paid a hefty sum of money and gold in exchange for their services.
Each parent took three children with the intent to rendezvous at a pre-determined location and time. To ensure that they were meeting the correct people at the checkpoint, his family had one half of a photo and the mercenaries had the other half. Piecing together the photo was used as a strategy to provide information and assurance that they were meeting the right people at the rendezvous point and not the secret police.
Once confirmed, the hired mercenaries loaded them into a dump truck and drove them out of the city.
His family did not know if the soldiers would keep their word or kill them and just keep the money. The soldiers stayed true to their word and drove them out to the countryside. Once dusk settled, they ran into the rain forest and made a campsite. Just past midnight and under a full bright moon, they met up with more soldiers of fortune who would lead them across the Mekong River on canoes. It was monsoon season and the Mekong had overrun its banks making it wider than usual to cross. This increased their chances of being caught because it required more time on the river.
They boarded three canoes and started crossing the river.
While maneuvering around floating debris and dead livestock, they realized that one canoe had a leak. To make matters worse, machine gun patrol boats were cruising in that particular area. Despite these difficulties, they were able to avoid the dangers and made it across to Thailand.
Once they arrived in Thailand, his family gave the mercenaries all of their money and valuables.
It was a very emotional time for his parents because they left everything they had ever known on the other side of the river. All they had were the clothes on their backs and each other to start anew. They found a hut and spent the night. The next morning a local farmer found them and took them to the village. My father walked through leach-infested rice paddies and a few of his siblings fell into the paddies.
In the village, the locals gave them food, but the police took them into custody.
My father became very sick in jail and his parents feared that he was going to be left behind if his health did not improve fast enough. Fortunately, the wife of the local sheriff took pity upon them and helped their family in treating my father.
The group was sent to a refugee camp with other war refugees. Inside the refugee camp, they had shelter in the form of thatched huts and dirt floors. They cooked food in a makeshift stove using ceramic planter pots filled with wood chips. The pots had a grill on top and a mouse hole on the bottom to light the fire. They slept on bamboo beds with mosquito nets placed a few feet above the dirt floor to avoid scorpions and spiders.
His family survived by selling water and ice.
The money made was used to buy rice, vegetables, and water. If they were lucky, the camp would sell pork belly or fermented tuna. Camp conditions were less than ideal and carried much personal risk. Each night they loaded up a rickshaw with their belongings in case there was a fire (thatched huts tend to catch fire quickly). The rickshaw made for a fast escape with possessions.
The original plan was to seek political asylum in France because they had family living there, but America was the quickest way out of the refugee camp in Thailand. This was a last minute change due to an uncle living in America being able to sponsor them. He had escaped to America years earlier and had worked hard to put himself in a position to help them. They left the refugee camp after two years and began the long journey to America.
I asked my father if he thought that his struggles were worth coming to America.
He responded by saying: "Yes, it was worth it. The hardship we endured from the time we landed in Thailand, to the refugee camp, to coming to America, made our family stronger. We were very poor when we arrived in America the week of Thanksgiving. A family of nine that did not speak a word of English or know the culture with $250 in their pocket was going to start a new life. Somehow, someway, our family found a way to survive and thrive in our new country."