Meet Trailblazer, Channapha Khamvongsa - Founder, Legacies of War

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.

So Legacies was developed to create awareness about the bombing, to advocate for more funding so the bombs could be removed, and to really provide space for healing the pains of the wounds of war and to adevently create a place for hope for a greater peace in this world. So Legacies travels to Laos every year and we have a very multi-layered sort of approach to the work that we do. We integrate a lot of arts and culture into telling this story and to make people aware that this is not about history, this is still happening today. Through the years we have been able to bring together really unlikely allies. Governments from the US speaking with governments from Laos, former enemies, speaking at and coming to the same table on how to address this problem.


When we started the US was providing 3 million dollars, 2 to 3 million dollars per year to clear the bombs. This is almost nothing when you look at the federal budget. When asked why is so little being provided, the state department official at that time said “No has ever come in to ask”. That was 2005/2006. Ever since we have been asking. And we ask every single year.


As a result we have been able to get the first congressional hearing on UXO in Laos, we have been able to work with the state department, with congressional members all around the country to make sure that this issue does not get forgotten and that resources are allocated to make sure that we finish this job. Then in 2016, President Obama became the first US president to visit Laos. We worked closely with the White house to make sure that this issue got addressed. It was his first speech in Laos and President Obama made a 90 Million dollar commitment on this issue. So from 2 to 3 million to 90 million, but every year as you know DC is a little ambiguous and uncertain, so every year we have to go back to make sure the US allocates funding. At this point it is about 30 million per year. So, Legacies has come so far but, of the estimated 80 million bombs that remained, less than 5% has actually been cleared. So that's what Legacies does everyday. We work to help to educate people around the country and to make sure Laos isn't forgotten. We have an amazing board and advisors that help us to keep the momentum going. More than anything we engage to learn more, we're always open to facilitating more conversations, discussions, events and educational opportunities."

Speech by Channapha Khamvongsa - Legacies of War Foundation Gala 2019

"... a binder full of drawings . Those were the original catalyst for the founding of Legacies of War and connected me to a history that i had lost for so long. "

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