I have lived in Decorah, Iowa, for 25 years. I graduated from this high school in 1990. Now I work as a machine operator. When I was 11 years old, my family escaped from Laos. We became refugees and stayed in refugee camps in Thailand for three and a half years. From there, my family was sent to a refugee camp in the Philippines. We spent seven months there, learning a little bit of English before moving to the United States.
Years after our escape from Laos, my parents had already been refugees, forced by conflict to leave their homeland in North Vietnam. They are part of a small ethnic group called Thai Dam. They lived in a town called Son La. They have their own language which is similar to Laotian. My father and many other men fought against the spread of communism in North Vietnam. They fought alongside the French in the well known battle of Dien Bien Phu. When the French pulled out from North Vietnam, the families who had fought along with them were resettled in Laos. This was before Laos itself became a communist country on December 2, 1975.
On the night of February 21, 1981, when I was 11 years old, my family became refugees once more as we escaped from Laos. We crossed the Mekong River late at night by boat with nine other people. Three of them were our cousins. We hired men to help us cross the Mekong River to Thailand. I still remember every detail of that night. We walked through the woods and had to stop and rest while one of the men checked the road ahead of us. Everyone escaped safely over to Thailand that night.
Why did we flee from Laos? To escape the same communism my father had fought in his youth. Under communism, people were forced to work in collective farms. But the crops that were raised went to Russia and China in exchange for weapons and war planes, while the majority of the people were left starving. The government forced people to exchange their money frequently. They came out with newly printed currency. It didn't matter how much money you had, the government would decide how much they would give you for it. They also controlled the media, like newspapers and radio. They even controlled family life. Any dispute between you and your family or your in-laws would land you in detention camp for a year or two. I know this because they arrested my brother-in-law for arguing with my dad. About a month later, he was taken away to a detention camp as he was coming home from helping his parents on the farm. As you can see, there's nothing to like about the communists.
So my parents escaped from North Vietnam to Laos, where I was born, and then we had to escape from Laos into Thailand, where we lived in refugee camps for more than three years. The Thai government didn't allow refugees in their country. They only gave us food three days a week. Most of us became malnourished. Their goal was to make our lives so difficult that we would eventually return back to Laos. In fact, a few families did decide to go back to Laos because they couldn't handle the refugee camps.
In 1984, Laos finally allowed the United States and other countries to go in and offer refugees a new beginning. One of the ways they decide where to resettle a refugee is where that refugee may have relatives. My aunt and uncle were living here in the United States. They had come to Decorah as refugees in the late '70s. So in March of 1984, my family had an interview with officials from the U.S. and passed the interview. While we waited to come to our new home, we were sent to a different camp in Thailand for three months, and then to the Philippines, where we waited for another seven months.
Finally, on January 10, 1985, a date that I will always remember, my family came to the U.S. Our final flight landed at the airport in Waterloo, Iowa, at about 10:00 p.m. One of our sponsors, Birgetta Christianson, and a pastor from First Lutheran Church went to pick us up with my aunt and her daughter. We had a winter storm that day. I still remember the ride to Decorah. It was very cold in the van. Snow was falling very hard. More than a foot of snow was already on the ground. Then we finally arrived in Decorah late that night. My cousins stayed up and waited to welcome us.
As I sat down to rest on a sofa in the living room of my aunt's house right around the corner here on Winneshiek Avenue, I thought to myself: "I don't have to be a refugee anymore."
I will always remember the long and difficult journey that my family had to go through to get here. I will always be thankful for the opportunity to come and live in this great country called United States of America.
Cheuang Kavan lives in Decorah, Iowa.
This account is taken from Voices of Immigration, a campaign of Christians for Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CCIR) aimed at highlighting the stories of immigrants in our country. Believing that every person is made in the image of God, we seek to restore the human element to the conversation around immigration reform. Each day this week a new story will be highlighted on God's Politics, with additional ones posted throughout March at CCIR's Web site: www.faithandimmigration.org.