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Laotian family achieves the ‘American Dream’

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Although the Vietnam War has been over for more than forty years, the memories of it are still fresh in Bounthieng Nammontry’s mind. The sixty-nine-year-old Laotian who goes by his American name, Steven, fought in the Laotian army against the communists.

He was married to his wife, Dokkab, and joined the army when he was just nineteen years old.  

“It was important that I fought for my country,” Steven stated.

He rose to the rank of staff sergeant. During his time in the army, he worked in an office and in the military police. Steven also fought in Vietnam and was shot twice.

When the United States pulled out of Vietnam, the communists in Laos put Steven and the rest of the soldiers in prison. After a year and a half as a prisoner, he escaped and made his way back to his family, but his freedom was short-lived.

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Steven was caught and sent to a facility to indoctrinate him into Communism. For thirteen years he worked for his captors, but he was allowed to visit his wife, Dokkab, from time to time. She was living with her parents who had a small farm. Over the course of that time, they started a family and had a total of six children.  

All during these years, Steven was planning the family’s escape from Laos. Finally, In 1985, he and Dokkab, along with their six children were ready to set out on the perilous journey to freedom.

Steven’s daughter, Sue, lives in Spring Hill. She described what it felt like as a four-year-old child to undertake such a risky endeavor.

“We left at midnight. It was my parents, two older brothers, my twin sister, and a younger brother and sister, who are also twins. It was scary. We were shot at.”

Steven had paid for a bus to take them to Thailand, where there was a refugee camp. However, the bus dropped them off many miles from the camp. Steven remembers walking the rest of the way, crossing the Mekong River and finally making it to the refugee camp.   

Conditions were very harsh at the camp. There was not enough food, but at least they were out of harm’s way. The family stayed at the refugee camp in Thailand for eight months before being transferred to a refugee camp in the Philippines.

They were treated better there. The children went to school and learned English. The family learned about American culture.

“They taught us what to expect in coming to the United States, so there would not be as much of a culture shock for us,” Sue remarked.

Finally, in 1986 after six months in the Philippine refugee camp, they were able to come to the United States. A family in Columbus, Ohio sponsored them.

“We were very happy to get to the United States, even though we were poor,” Steven said.

He worked odd jobs to make money to support his family. The children even worked. They collected earthworms at night and sold them to bait shops. Eventually, Steven went to school to learn electronics and later worked in a plastics factory.   

When asked what he liked best about the United States, Steven smiled and said:

“Everything. I like the American laws that give you freedom and educational opportunities.”  

Unfortunately, the rest of Steven’s family stayed in Laos because they were afraid to leave. Steven and Dokkab have been back several times to visit their relatives.  

“Things are bad in Laos. There is no freedom of speech. The government is very corrupt. They don’t care about making the country better. Most of the people are very poor,” Steven explained. “I’m sad that the rest of my family didn’t come.”

Steven and his family have achieved the ‘American Dream.’ Their children have careers. Steven is enjoying retirement. He and Dokkab spend their winters in Spring Hill with their daughter, Sue, and her family. They summer in Columbus with one of their other daughters, Moni.  

Leslie Stein
Leslie Stein
Leslie Stein has over 35 years experience as a Speech-Language Pathologist working with neurologically impaired adults. She received her undergraduate and graduate degrees at the University of South Florida in Speech Pathology.
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