In 1975, the Kingdom of Laos dissolved after 20 years of pressure from communist rebels. The resulting unstable political atmosphere drove thousands of families, including my own, to disperse across the world. It would be decades before they saw their country – and the loved ones they left behind – again.
My father’s older sister, Pa Boun, worked as an attendant to the former princess. Her husband, Loung Lay, served in the King’s Army. Members of the royal family were sent to labor camps after the communist takeover, and most of them perished there. Fearing persecution, my aunt and uncle fled the country in 1978, the year after my brother was born. In that same year, my father left for Hungary to continue his education. While he was away, soldiers arrested my maternal grandfather and detained him for several months. Tou Bounmy once made a fortune in the timber business but later became a local politician in Vientiane. This position made him a target for the new government. Mom somehow managed to orchestrate his escape by rallying the help of some local townsmen. When he was first captured, he had been optimistic about their intentions; later he realized the soldiers planned to kill him. The time had come for my parents and brother to flee.
When my father returned from his studies in 1980, he and two of my uncles crossed the Mekong into Thailand first. They paid a bribe in advance for safe passage but were peppered with gunfire as they swam across, forcing them to remain submerged most of the way. That part of the story is vague – somehow, they made it into Thailand. Mom, Brother, and another aunt followed them across by boat the next day, without mishap.
The first camp they came to was in the province of Nong Khai. Mom describes this place as a prison: they were detained for three days before guards brought food and water; during this time, the Thai government was deciding what to do with them. The camp was not open to the United Nations. Soldiers were posted there to prevent any Lao nationals from escaping deeper into the country.
My mother doesn’t speak much about Nong Khai. Her words become very hesitant and she shakes her head. She will only say that it was a “very bad time.” I never push her to elaborate.
A month later, the prisoners were transferred to a camp in Nakhon Phanom, nearly 300 kilometers away. Conditions here were slightly better but nowhere near ideal. Food was still scarce: a typical meal consisted of one handful of sticky rice and a piece of jerky, which fed a family of four. A story my mother tells is how she and Brother gathered small mud crabs, the kind that contain virtually no meat. She would sprinkle them with salt before toasting them over a small fire, just to add flavor to the sticky rice.
I was born into these conditions, two years after my family migrated to Nakhon Phanom. Mom had been so thin that no one believed she was pregnant. I can only imagine her mixed emotions, knowing that there was now another tiny mouth to feed. I was two months premature and Mom was constantly ill; she did not produce enough milk for me. As a result, I was nursed by many other mothers in the camp. In a very literal sense, I was raised by that village of refugees.
Meanwhile, in America, Pa Boun and Loung Lay had not forgotten us. They told their sponsors that they still had family living in a Thai refugee camp. These sponsors belonged to the congregation of St. James United Methodist Church. One family, the Newtons, took particular interest in our story. With support from the church, they started the process of reuniting us with Pa and Loung.
In early 1984, we were transferred to another camp, this time in the Philippines. We spent 8 months there, then boarded a plane to our new home. There were many more hardships to come, but the worst was over.
Of course, this story was told to me by several different people and has grown in complexity over time. I don’t actually remember anything but the memories are as vivid as if they were my own.
In graduate school, one of my research projects involved the health outcomes of children born in refugee camps. I speculated that the situation for many children was much worse than mine, but I was not quite prepared for what I found. I did not realize how many children are born and grow up in refugee camps, spending crucial years of development without proper nutrition or psychological support. Almost half of all global refugees in 2012 were children under the age of 18. Although I focused on Thai refugee camps for the purpose of my project, it is impossible to ignore the children suffering in Afghanistan, Kenya, the Sudan, and several other countries in the midst of conflict. Their struggle is ongoing. We are the lucky ones.