Leaving Laos: "If We Stayed, I Knew We Wouldn't Survive"

Jun 9, 2015

Forty years ago the Hmong people began seeking refuge in the United States after the CIA recruited a guerrilla army of Hmong people to fight the North Vietnamese in Laos in what’s known as the Secret War. Before coming to the US they spent years in refugee camps in Thailand. Thousands of those refugees made it to America where their lives changed forever. FM89’s Ezra David Romero speaks with a Hmong family who made the journey and has no desire to return to their homeland. 

Don Vang knew he had to get his family out of Laos during the “Secret War” initiated by the CIA in Laos in the 70s. As a medic on the side of the Americans, he knew his family wasn’t safe.

"Leaving the country was really hard. We didn't know what was ahead of us and we didn't know if we were going to be killed or if we were going to survive." - Pai Vang

“If we stayed, I knew we wouldn’t survive," Vang says. "We didn’t know where to go or what to do. We just knew that General Vang Pao had left the country. So that was his thinking. If he left, then we need to leave.”

In the middle of the night Vang, his wife, father and son raced through the forest to escape the Vietnamese who were searching for anyone affiliated with the Hmong who fought in the war.

Vang’s wife, Pai, can’t forget that rainy night .

“Leaving the country was really hard," says Pai Vang. "We didn’t know what was ahead of us and we didn’t know if we were going to be killed or if we were going to survive.”

When the family reached the Me-Kong River, separating Laos from Thailand, the water was high and rushing. The soaked family climbed into a boat with more than fifty others. Vang's dad waited for the second boat. Reaching the shore safely the three waited for their grandfather to arrive.

The Mekong River
Credit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

“There was too many people and the boat was really small," Pai Vang says. "Everybody was trying to get on the first trip, but it didn’t’ fit everyone. On the first trip my husband, son and I were on it. We made it across. But the second trip did not make it. No one survived.”

As the boat capsized the family watched in horror realizing they would never see their patriarch again. The loss of life wasn’t just a reality for the Vang family. Thousands of people died fleeing Laos and many more in refugee camps. When the family arrived at a refugee camp in 1976 they felt safe, but isolated.

“Coming to Thailand was very difficult," says Pai Vang. "No restrooms, no where to cook. You literally had to go to the woods to get wood. There was no water to drink  in the refugee camps. We didn’t know how to live.”

The family survived off little to nothing in the camp.

“We weren't even allowed to go out of the camps to collect wood to burn, to cook food with," says Pai Vang. "We had to wait for the Americans or the government to provide materials for us."

That aid didn’t always come quickly. At times the couple says they went hungry for days. Two years later the family came to the US. They boarded a plane clutching only what they could hold. A half a day later they landed in Los Angeles leaving everything familiar behind.

ROMERO: “What was the day like when you found out you could come?”
DON VANG: “We didn’t know what to think. We just knew we could never go back to where we had come from. We could only hope for the best for the future and see where it would take us.”

After making it through customs the family was taken to a hotel that they’d call home for about a week. They had no idea what a hotel looked like, where to buy food or where they would relocate. They met kindness through a hotel janitor.

"There was this African American man who spent more than $19 of food for the family," says Don Vang.

That man bought them to a fast-food restaurant.

ROMERO: “What’d you order?”
DON VANG: “Hamburgers. So then finally we were able to eat a more substantial meal than just bread.”

The next day a Vietnamese translator they met the airport helped the family relocate to Santa Barbara where a small population of Hmong people lived. Shortly after settling the family began yearning for produce grown in Laos.  

The Vang's have planted a garden in their backyard with red lettuce and other vegetables, herbs and fruit.
Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio

"My mom’s biggest fear in leaving the country was that will I ever get to eat my green vegetables, will I get to ever farm again," says Don and Pai's daughter Tara Vang.  "She said that she noticed that in America there was similar produce but the taste was not the same."

So Pai Vang planted a small backyard garden with mustard seeds she had brought from her homeland.  

“The Hmong folks that had arrived at that time they saw my mom’s greens and they were like you have our food from the home county can you share some. And the next harvest she shared her seeds," says Tara Vang.

The family called the Santa Barbara area home until five years ago. They uprooted and moved to the Central Valley to help support their son while he went to Fresno State. 

ROMERO: “How has life been in Fresno for you?”
DON VANG: “It’s really good for farming.”

Their back yard corner lot in Southwest Fresno is full of rows of veggies like “zucchini, leafy greens. Oh, this is corn, squash,” Tara Vang says.

Today the Vang’s have eight grown children that live in Minnesota and in Fresno. They love the area because they can farm here, just like they did in Laos.

ROMERO: “Do you ever miss your homeland?”
PAI VANG: “I miss the landscape, but I don’t miss the laws of the land.  It’s being run by communism. I would not want to go back.”