I know what it’s like to leave your country to escape war. We need to do everything we can to support Afghan refugees.
In response to recent events in Afghanistan, we are sharing this statement below by Torm Nompraseurt, APEN’s Senior Community Organizer and one of APEN’s founders, who has been a community leader in Richmond’s Southeast Asian refugee community for decades. We asked Torm to share his experience as a refugee in the 1970s —not to distract from the challenges that Afghan refugees face today, but to remind us that our own histories can guide us toward solidarity.
For so many of us in the Southeast Asian refugee community, the images coming out of Afghanistan last week brought us back to our own experiences of U.S. wars in our homelands — including the so-called “Vietnam War,” which was really waged in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.
In Laos, the war and the chaos of evacuation looked different than today, but the pain, anger, and fear are shared.
In 1973, the Secret War in Laos came to an end through a ceasefire between the Royal Lao Government and the Pathet Lao, communist insurgents aligned with the North Vietnamese Army. Over 9 years, the U.S. had dropped more than 2 million bombs in Laos as part of a brutal war that divided families, villages, tribes and ethnic groups. A coalition government was formed shortly after the ceasefire was declared, but it collapsed within two years in Spring 1975 as the U.S. military completed its withdrawal from the region. The Pathet Lao took complete control in December 1975 and formed the Lao People’s Democratic Republic.
At the time, I was one of the over 100,000 Laotians who had worked with the U.S. military during the war as teachers, nurses, and soldiers. I worked in a small town called Huay Xai in Bokeo Province, Laos, just across the Mekong River from Thailand. I worked as a head teacher in a rural village from 1973 to 1975, living with the family of my supervisor, a USAID worker.
The day that the U.S. military left, they didn’t even send a message to the people that had been working with them for nearly a decade. One day, all of the American personnel and families just left town and went to Vientiane. They had received orders to leave immediately, and they didn’t take anyone with them. They knew the danger that we were in as people who had sided with the U.S., but there was no plan to evacuate us. Many people were left to survive on their own. I was one of the lucky ones: they sent someone to evacuate myself and my wife to Thailand on May 24, 1975. By May 31, all American personal and family members had left Vientiane.
I was able to get out of the country, but some of my friends stayed because they believed that the Americans would come back and they would retake the government. I was afraid that I would end up being arrested and killed, due to my involvement with American work and staying with an American family, so myself, my wife, a friend, his wife, and their small child together crossed the river to Thailand — as tens of thousands more Laotians would do in the coming months.
As Laotian refugees, we know what it’s like to flee your home, your land, and your country because you want to live. We must support the hundreds of thousands of Afghan people who are experiencing that today, and the many more who are staying in Afghanistan and fighting to shape their future there.
I was displaced seven times: five times within my own country, once to Thailand and finally to the United States. When I arrived in Bangkok, I got a job at the refugee processing center there. I was again very lucky to have a job. The conditions in the camps were very difficult: there was little shelter and food available, and many families would arrive in the rain and have nowhere to sleep, setting up tarps to stay dry. There were camps like these all over Thailand, and most people who arrived would end up living in the camps for years.
Millions of Afghan refugees have been displaced by the war, many of them living in refugee camps in Pakistan and Iran. Despite carrying out 20 years of war and occupation in the country, the U.S. government has only committed to resettling 22,000 Afghan refugees. We can do so much more. Please join me in calling your congressional representatives and demanding that they resettle as many Afghan refugees into the country as possible.
Yet again, I was lucky. In 1975, I was part of the first group of Laotian refugees that were admitted to the United States. I knew one family in the U.S. — the wife had been a nurse in the Peace Corps in Thailand, and I had met her husband in Laos.
When I arrived in Richmond, California, I felt that I had finally arrived in a safe place where we could live our lives, go to school, and raise a family. I remember crossing the Bay Bridge on the way from the San Francisco Airport to Richmond and thinking that everything looked so big. I was also thinking about my friends and family who were still in refugee camps, and how I could help them when they arrived here.
I didn’t anticipate what it would be like to be a refugee here, especially as one of the first Laotian families in Richmond. When you went out, people would stare at you in the store. They would ask where you were from, and when you answered “Laos,” no one knew where that was. They had no idea what kind of hell we went through or what their own government did in our homelands.
Over time, I sponsored many Laotian families to come to the Bay Area. As more families arrived, I would help them find apartments and apply for benefits, often begging landlords to rent to Laotian families. Politicians here talk about immigrants and refugees like we’re thieves, coming here to steal from Americans. This was true in Richmond, just like it is true across the U.S. People thought that we had come here to take their jobs, and there were so many misunderstandings between our communities early on.
Over the decades, our community has grown. We’ve welcomed new refugee families, set up Lao grocery stores and businesses, and raised our kids here. We’ve come together to fight for rent control and stand up to big polluters that are making us sick. We’ve built relationships with other communities of color, and have built solidarity around our shared histories and hopes for a future where our children can live fully and freely, free from militarism, exploitation, and racism.
Some things have changed about this country, but many things haven’t. Afghan refugees will likely face discrimination and Islamophobia when they begin to build a new life here.
To help welcome refugees moving into your community, search for local organizations that work to support refugee families. Often they will have opportunities to support refugees by cleaning and setting up their new home, preparing and delivering food, or even meeting new arrivals at the airport.
In the East Bay, you can sign up to join the East Bay Community Response for Afghan Arrivals, coordinated by the East Bay Refugee and Immigrant Forum.
The Secret War in Laos may have ended decades ago, but the wounds have not yet healed. I lost two of my brothers and 11 cousins to the war. Families on all sides suffered greatly. In Laos, people are still working to find and remove thousands of unexploded bombs from the land and to build their futures.
As people who know the pain of war and imperialism, we know that wars bring only pain and devastation — never healing. We are the ones who are left behind in the wake of U.S. imperial wars, who continue to bear the consequences of American “mistakes” for generations.
We have to lift up our voices together and demand an end to war — and do everything we can to support those left in its wake.