The American Way
A MOTHER'S ADVICE: 'FOLLOW THE SETTING SUN'
by Boun Sandraow
American Reporter Correspondent
BOSTON -- Born in 1972, I was forced out of my home village of Goong Mong Ghure, in the country of Laos, back in 1981 as a result of Communist infiltration. The Communists invaded my primitive village and executed many innocent villagers, including my father during their hostile takeover.
Only two viable choices were open to me at the tender age of nine years old: Live everyday with trepidation, or heed the advice my mother once gave me when I felt all hope was lost, "Follow the setting sun."
I chose the latter and embarked on a journey that can only be described as impetuous and improbable. I, along with two childhood friends, Khan and Tong, attempted to escape the wrath of the Communist regime by traveling through the dense jungles of Laos in search of the sun setting over the Mekong River.
Not once were we guaranteed we would find the sun setting over the Mekong or even wake up alive the next day. We were alone and without home-cooked food during our three-week lonely journey in the jungle. We subsisted at times on wild fruit and our own urine. The spirits of our ancestors were always with us
Fatigued, starving and dehydrated, we somehow were able to survive our near-deadly jungle journey. However, our search to find freedom was not over. The three of us had to find a way to cross the Mekong to reach Thailand. I had heard as a child that Thailand was a place of prosperity and wealth for refugees who sought freedom and solace.
The spirit of my father helped safely guide me across the Mekong on my makeshift raft, but unfortunately Khan and Tong lost their lives to the mighty Mekong when they drowned. I made it to Thailand alive; however, I gave up the possibility of ever seeing my mother again and lost both of my best friends in the process.
I was a little child all alone on a new land with no family or direction. I was eventually apprehended by the Thai border patrol and was brought to a military base where I faced a grave decision. The leader of the army threatened me and gave me a choice: Either learn to be a willing and able fighting soldier for the rebel army, or be extradited back to Laos to be executed. .
I didn't want to fight, but I had no choice. I felt in both my body and mind that I would be tarnishing the spirits of my father and my friends if I gave up my life and did not continue my mission to find freedom. I reluctantly joined the rebel army and learned at a young age how to operate an AK-47 machine gun.
Forced to participate in violent acts of torture against fellow comrades and civilians for over two years, I lived in constant fear. My leader frequently pointed his gun at my head and forced me to do things against my will.
In the early months of 1986, I escaped the rebel army camp, deliberately turned myself into officers of the government of Thailand and declared asylum from Laos. I couldn't take the abuse anymore; I risked my life for a chance to escape. I was arrested and detained, then later sent away to a refugee detention camp.
I endured a strenuous life of solitude and verbal abuse for three and a half years while stationed in the refugee camp, before being sent to America on a special United Nations refugee program.
I came to America in the early fall of 1989 without any basic knowledge of the English language. I found myself alone in a foreign land many miles away from my home village in Laos, with only memories of loved ones to keep me from being in constant despair.
There was much adversity to deal with when I first arrived in the U.S. People with whom I came into contact sometimes told me that I did not belong in America, as America was not a place for a refugee without reading or writing skills. Feeling disparaged, and down on my luck, I eventually fell into a Laotian street gang where I felt a sense of purpose and belonging in this new world.
My time on the streets as a gang member was short-lived. Too many encounters with law enforcement officials forced me to rethink my outlook on life. It was then I thought of my father and friends and vowed to their spirits that I would not waste my chance to make the most out of my life. I got out of the gang and found my way to Boston, Mass.
In Boston, I immediately enrolled in a local high school and completed four years of studies in a limited amount of time. I went to school from early morning until early afternoon, spending most of my afternoons at the Upward Bound Advance program at Boston University. I was determined to grasp the English language and master the high school curriculum. At night, I worked hard at a Thai restaurant so that I could pay my bills and help support the people who gave me shelter.
Once I successfully attained a high schooldiploma, and wanting to keep my momentum going, I enrolled in Bradford College, located in Haverhill, Massachusetts. I struggled a lot with my classes, and with the college atmosphere in general, but I persevered and was determined to succeed. I eventually completed a four-year program and graduated with a degree in Psychology and Political Science in May of 1997.
Today, after arriving in this country almost 16 years ago, I work at the U.S. Immigration office in downtown Boston. My hope is to help foreigners feel welcomed and help them learn what America truly has to offer: freedom and an opportunity for a better life.
My intense desire to publish my life story is not only to inspire people from all over the world, but also to create an awareness of my home country and my people. I feel my story can help generate publicity and general interest in my country that it sorely lacks currently. It is my passion to build a forum for my people and for me to be their voice.
I also believe that publicizing my life story throughout the world will open a gateway for other refugees like me to find their own way to freedom and dignity. As my mother's words gave me hope and the sun guided me to freedom, it is my burning desire to offer my story as inspiration to others that are lost, for my image to be their guiding light.
For more information about Boun Sandraow and the Kmhmu people of Laos, please visit: www.bounsandraow.com.