“I was just a small girl when my parents smuggled me out of Laos. Members of my family crossed the Mekong secretly in 1979, fleeing the new communist regime. I was seven years old and the last of three children to leave. My father whispered instructions before giving me to a family friend: “This man is going to take you to mum. If anyone asks, tell them he’s your father.” Shortly after, i was on a small fishing boat on our way to Thailand. Later, my real dad swam the river to join us all in Nong Khai. After a short period in a refugee camp we ended up in the US, in northern Virginia.
At home we were told to become American and work hard. For all that our parents have risked, which included escaping one by one by boat across the Mekong river to a refugee camp, for all that they had done to get us to America. It meant that we had to do well in school, work hard, and eventually take care of them. At home I couldn't talk about the past, and at school I couldn't talk about or learn about where I came from, (because although people had heard of Vietnam and Cambodia, very few people knew about Laos). For a very long time I felt quite invisible. I think for many of us who grew up here as refugees from Laos, you really felt that we didn't matter and where our families came from didn't matter. So for a long time I didn't know much about the history of why we came here and how we got here barely and what my parents would share. Then as I got older I started to learn more about the immense role the US played in Laos during the Vietnam war era. It was not a small role at all, but yet no one in the US knew about it. How was that possible?
So as I got older I started to learn more. I went on to do non-profit work and I ended up here in New York.I was working at the Ford Foundation in the fall of 2003, when I went to Washington D.C. for a meeting with one of Ford’s grantees, the Institute for Policy Studies. In attendance was John Cavanagh, Executive Director. In a chance introduction, John asked me what the origin of my name was. When I told him it was Laotian, he immediately exclaimed, “It’s really terrible what happened in the Plain of Jars!” Of course, I was shocked. After all, it seemed most Americans didn’t even know where Laos was, let alone, the specific region of Xieng Khoang, one of the most heavily bombed provinces.
So, I inquired furthered about his familiarity with the secret U.S. bombings in Laos. As it turns out, John had worked alongside Fred Branfman (the American anti-war activist) in the 1970s at the Indochina Resource Center, a policy think-tank working to stop the bombings in Southeast Asia. When the office closed down, John was cleaning out the office and came across the illustrations drawn by survivors of the U.S. bombings. With a sense that the drawings were important, he decided to hold on to them.