After the Vietnam War and the Secret War in Laos ended in 1975, communities and families all over Laos disintegrated. Those who fought with the US feared for their lives, but they disagreed about whether it was better to stay in Laos or leave for the refugee camps in Thailand. For those who chose to flee, the journey was perilous; the escape into the jungle, crossing the Mekong River, and reaching the refugee camps in Thailand often had to be done in secret. Those who stayed behind faced an equally perilous and uncertain future, and many were sent to re-education camps for siding with the US. Many families were separated forever.
In 1980, after a long journey through the forests, my father, Chao Lee, and his family escaped to Thailand by crossing the mighty Mekong River. They did so with three foot-long bamboo stalks bundled under each arm to help them float and “swim” across at night. The plan was to swim to an island in the river, run to the other side, and then swim to the border. As they attempted the crossing, border patrol guards fired their guns on the family. Around a hundred family members attempted the escape, but some were lost in the attempt. My father and his immediate family escaped unharmed, except for his only sister. She was carrying their baby nephew and was separated during the chaos. She ended up on the island, was arrested by the communist soldiers at dawn, and was taken back to Laos where both later died.
Many other families attempted the crossing in other ways. My mother, Mai Thao Lor, and her family hid in the jungle after the war. After some time, my grandfather decided to leave my mother and family with relatives while he crossed the Mekong with strangers. He later found two Thai men with a boat and paid them to take my mother and the family across the Mekong River. Once across the border, they made their way to the refugee camps.
My father’s family was taken to a refugee detention center and was cared for by French missionaries. Six months later (in the summer of 1981), my father and his family were taken to Ban Vinai Refugee Camp, where they underwent the refugee resettlement process. In the spring of 1983, my parents met each other while in the Ban Vinai Refugee Camp.
My father and his family completed the immigration process and arrived in Minnesota in June 1984. They settled in St. Paul, thanks to sponsorship by an uncle who had come to the US earlier after a faith-based organization sponsored them, like many of the first waves of refugees who came to the US.
A year later (in December of 1985), my mother and her family were able to resettle to Spokane, Washington. Later, my maternal grandfather asked relatives to help the family move halfway across the country to Wisconsin to be closer to his family. My parents soon found each other again, separated now only by a state border and a three hour drive. They married three years later and, as they say, the rest is history.
My family is among the nearly 247,000 Hmong Americans reflecting on the 40th anniversary of the community’s time in the United States after the end of the Vietnam and Secret Wars. Both my parents were lucky to have survived the ordeal. The war separated many families both physically and politically in various ways throughout the conflict, and afterwards as well. Thankfully some have been reunited, but some have not. While the end of the Vietnam War and the resettlement process separated hundreds of thousands of Hmong, Lao, Cambodian, and Vietnamese refugee families, the survivors overcame these tragedies through their resilience and spirit. Over time, people found each other again, and some formed new family units, creating new roots and strong foundations for new generations of Southeast Asian Americans.
By Souvan Lee
Souvan Lee works as SEARAC's Program Associate for education equity and our annual Leadership and Advocacy Training. Souvan grew up in Minnesota and holds a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from the University of Minnesota. His parents are Hmong refugees from Laos, and he is the second oldest of five children.