Retelling the story of her family’s escape from Laos in 1980 is still painful, said Manola Khounviseth during the Walk for Harmony event held in Williams Lake Monday.
Khounviseth said her father was jailed by the communist regime in Laos because he worked for the Western government.
“He was one of the lucky ones because he had an uncle who was a communist and he was able to get my dad out of the camp,” she said as she paused to hold back tears.
“My uncle advised us that we needed to leave, otherwise my dad would be jailed and never come back again.”
Her parents sold everything they owned, and over time her mother paid some merchants to take her brother and sister to Thailand one by one.
“My father and my two aunts decided to swim across the Mekong River and there was only myself and my mom left. So finally we were able to pay another set of merchants to take us across to the refugee camp in Thailand set up by the Western governments of France and the U.S.”
Coming to Canada from Laos in the heart of winter was a shock.
“We were in a motel looking out and there was so much snow which we had never seen before. None of us were actually brave enough to go outside.”
They were sponsored by the government and many Prince George citizens provided for them, especially two families that guided them and even provided them with food if needed.
“The one thing I remember the most is the father of one family,” she said. “He was an elementary school teacher. He spent long hours tutoring us in English and helping us with our homework. Today I work as a pharmacist and he played a major part in my success. We are still friends.”
Thinking about all that help stills sparks gratitude in her, she added.
“It’s very important for us now, if we have the chance, to sponsor any families that need to escape from persecution from their country. And when they are here we guide them and provide them with whatever they need because it can be quite difficult to adjust in a new country.”
Margaret Anne Enders of Canadian Mental Health’s multiculturalism program said Khounviseth’s experience is something many Canadians could only imagine in a nightmare.
“It is hard to understand or have a sense of, but hopefully when we hear stories like yours and those of refugees from around the world, it enables us to open up our hearts and search inside about what we can do ourselves to help out.”
Enders said there are 20 million refugees world-wide and about four million of those are from Syria. Another 38 million refugees have been displaced in their own countries and do not have safe places to live.
“It really is a world-wide crisis.”
While the federal government is opening up some avenues for refugees to come to Canada, the government is also counting on private sponsors to help, said Sharon Taylor a program co-ordinator with the Immigrant and Multicultural Services Centre.
“The sponsors would help people get to Canada, sponsor them for up to a year and help them get settled into a community,” Taylor said. “We do have some local people who are interested in this both here in Williams Lake and in Horsefly.”
Anyone interested in taking an active role or supporting refugees in other ways is invited to attend a meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 29 at 5 p.m. in the CMHA office at 51 Fourth Avenue South (across from Safeway).
For more information call Taylor at 778-412-9119.