Not the most positive thoughts or prettiest images come to mind when you hear the word “refugee.” The thing is: refugees are strong, courageous and survivors.
There are many in this world who have had to leave behind everything they have and everything they know just to LIVE. In honour of World Refugee Day, I would like to share a part of my father's refugee journey.
“I guess it's safe to label myself as a bomb child, because I came down with the bombs in the same year.”
— Sourasith Manikhong
My dad, Sourasith Manikhong, labels himself “a bomb child” because he was born in 1964 when the bombing in Laos begun. He was born in a small village called Ban Houay Xay, which is in the northern part of Laos. Soon after his birth, his family moved back to Luang Prabang, the capital and royal city of Laos.
There are 12 siblings in my father’s family and he was the tenth child. During that era in Laos, it was rare to have such a big family without a single death given the lack of healthcare and quality of living.
It was not until about 1971-1972 that the fighting slowly moved in closer to his village. As the fighting got closer to home, my father recalls moving from place to place and from one province to the next to keep safe. Sometimes while he and his siblings were playing, they would hear helicopters flying across the village as they would drop flyers down on the area. Oddly, watching all the paper fall from the sky reminded him of thousands of butterflies from the distance. This was the way they gave the civilians warning to take cover or to communicate any messages they needed to get through.
Off and on he would hear the combat planes flying over the village so loudly and then there would be a huge bang from the bombs dropping down on the fields. He could feel the whole ground shaking afterwards. In the night’s sky, when it was too dark to see the planes flying, he would see red bullets flying across the sky as they were shooting, “pouring down like a red hot rainstorm, followed by the sounds of thunder from the bombs.” His father would gather them all together and tell them to stay low as they ran for shelter (a giant hole in the ground that they dug out), only to come out when it settled down.
In 1973, many of the siblings were separated and made their escapes at different times throughout the years that followed. To this day, all twelve siblings are still alive and scattered across Canada, California and back in Laos.
Everyone in the family has their own unique story about how and why they fled Laos. My dad’s story is this:
Sourasith Manikhong’s Story
Three months ago, my father watched in fear as his best-friend and dearest brother, Deth (aged 15 years), swam across the mighty Mekong River to escape Laos all alone. As they were the closest to each other out of all the siblings, life was not the same without him and he missed him deeply.
One day at the age of 14, my dad got together with his younger brother Kat, who was 13, and his nephew Thea, who was only 8 years of age, and they decided they would escape Laos to follow their brother and join the other family members who had previously fled Laos and settled down in Nongkhai Refugee Camp in Thailand. This secret had to be kept well, as his parents never wanted to leave Laos and would never have allowed the boys to do such a thing at such a young age.
My father remembers this memory so vividly: in his first attempt to sneak out of their house, they didn't make it far and got caught by their aunt who brought them back home and told them never to even think about doing it again. Of course, being young, determined boys, they disregarded her orders and the next day hopped on a bus to Ban Tha Dua, a small village outside the city of Vientiane. From there they went to the harbour where they would make a daring attempt to escape across the Mekong River by sneaking onto a little transport ferry boat on route to Thailand.
My father will never forget how his mind was flooded with worries and fears that something bad would happen if they were caught. As they hid, a soldier with an AK-47 assault rifle started searching and scanning the whole ferry to make sure no one was hiding on it. My father remembers footsteps coming and going all over the boat, so they had to quickly move in silence from one corner to another. It felt like a game of cat and mouse, sneaking around quickly and quietly as if their life depended on it. They were so scared, and with nothing to do but pray, they asked Buddha to protect them and prayed and prayed. Just as the footsteps were heading directly towards them, it seemed like their prayers were being answered: out of nowhere, heavy rain started to pour down. As the footsteps went away from them, the ferry started heading out towards Thailand.
After the ferry crossed the Mekong River, it came to dock and they knew it was time to come out of their hideout and prepare to surrender themselves to the Thai officers. They had no idea what would happen next.
My dad’s heart once again was bursting with fear and he remembers the chaos that followed as soon as they emerged. So many guards surrounded them; some yelling to send them back to Laos, others saying to tie them up. They all looked so confused and unsure of what to do with them. Finally, the guards told the boys that if they did not want to go back then they’d better start talking. They asked where their family was. Visibly terrified and scared, my dad told them lies with a shaky voice and a strained body. He lied and told them they had no one left in Laos to take care of them and that they wanted to go to the Lao refugee camp to be with their sister and brothers. After interrogating them for a while more, a strange unknown man came from the back screaming with excitement, claiming that he was their long-lost uncle. He told the Thai police that the boys wouldn’t remember him, because the last time he saw them they were just toddlers. The Thai officers believed this man’s white lies and released them to this total stranger.
So they were in a strange land, with an even stranger man. They left the border crossing just like that and now their lives were literally in his hands. As the man pedaled down the road, he was oddly happy and clearly proud of himself for luring them away from the Thai authorities. It turned out that the man was living near the refugee camp and his profession was literally sneaking in and out of the camp. That first night they ended up sleeping in his house just outside the big campsite.
When dawn broke the next morning, he told them to wait for him and left them with his family while he went inside the camp to look for my dad’s sister. It took him most of the day and finally he gave up searching on his own and brought the boys back with him a second time to look.
They looked intensively as they rode on the road scanning the campsite without saying anything to each other. Just before dusk, while they were still eagerly searching, the silence quickly turned into screams and excitement. Hearing a familiar voice was music to their ears. It was their brother Deth. Without hesitation, they shouted with joy, jumped out of the bike, and ran towards their brother, leaving the man confused and shocked. My uncle ended up taking them to one of their older sisters shelter. It turned out my aunt knew the strange man and had to pay him a small reward.
Life in the campsite
My father’s time inside the refugee camp was short lived. Although they had nothing, they had each other and that was enough. By November that year, they received great news that they were being sponsored by New Life Community Church in British Columbia, Canada. As they prepared to leave, it was required they all pass a physical exam. Unfortunately, everyone but my dad passed the test, as he tested positive for tuberculosis (TB). They made the decision to leave without him and he was sent back to the camp alone. Luckily, his other sister was still back in the camp and within three months he passed the physical test after being treated for TB and he and his sister were put on a plane full of refugees en route to Canada.
My father’s journey escaping Laos is only a small part of a much bigger story. The cultural shock he experienced arriving in Canada to start a new life is another story to tell another time. I am proud to live in a country that opens its arms to people fleeing danger and injustice. It is important to remember that we are not all born lucky enough to live a life of freedom. Let us continue coming together to create a more inclusive world where no one is left behind.