Thanksgiving Day starts the holiday season with food, parties, family, and fun. This is also the time to reflect on what’s really important in life. The world we live in today is driven by material things and we sometimes forget what’s real and meaningful to us.
I am just as guilty as everybody else when it comes to “things”; I love gadgets and shiny new toys just as much as the next person. I’ve done the Black Friday shopping, waited in line at Best Buy in the freezing cold for a really good deal, then racing to another store to do the same thing. It’s what we do on Black Friday right?
When I go through these moments of over indulgence in materialistic things I’m reminded of a story I was told when I was 19 years old. A story that puts life into perspective, reminds me what’s really important and drives home the need to be thankful for everything I have.
The story takes place in December 1978 in Laos; 3 years following the Communist Pathet Lao took over the country in 1975. A young father, in his early 30’s left his wife and their 2 young children, a boy 4 yrs and girl 20 months, seeking a better opportunity for his family. This man, a former Lao Army solider, had seen what horror the communist can do to the people of its country. He’d witnessed beheadings of fellow soldiers and innocent civilians. He knew what the communist were capable of doing and did not want his family to be a victim of any of their doings.
It has been several weeks since he left the village; his wife has started to lose hope since there has been no word where he was or if he was still alive. Just as she was coming to the reality that he may never return to her and their family the young father returns home on a December day. His return was short; he told his wife that he’d found a way for them to escape the communist country but in order to do so they had to leave immediately. The young wife’s younger brother, a teenager, was home at the time and begged to come and the family, knowing this was his only hope agreed to bring him along. Her other siblings she had to leave behind as they were not at home. The young family grabbed basic essentials, with the clothes on their back said their goodbyes to her mother and secretly left the village by foot. Before leaving the village the young father instructed the remaining family members to hide or bury all their belongings. For the family feared the communists would hunt for them they were to be treated like they never existed.
The escape plan was to meet up with other people that were escaping Laos, at a rendezvous point a few miles outside of the village. With his 4 yr old son strapped to his back, daughter swaddled by his wife and teenage brother in tow they made the hike into the unknown jungle towards the rendezvous point. When they met up with the group they realized they were the only family with small children, this was not received well by some. They feared the family would slow them down and get them killed. The leader of the group allowed the family to continue the journey.
The journey to freedom from the communist was 41km (25 Miles) through the jungles of Laos by foot to the Mekong River. This is where they would escape to neighboring country of Thailand and seek refuge at a camp. For fear of being seen by communist soldiers and being killed the group only walked when the sun was down and stayed hidden within the foliage of the jungle during the day. This was about a day and half hike on foot but when carrying small children it was even more grueling.
The young children not understanding what was going on around them continued to play, laugh and giggle in jungle not knowing how much danger they were in. If they were caught by communist soldiers it would be an immediate beheading, no ifs, ands, or buts about it, everybody would be killed on the spot.
The refugees came very close to being discovered at one point when they were nearing a highway; trucks filled with communist soldiers were passing by. Since the sun was still out and as the foliage was light, hiding was very difficult. The leader of the group instructed everyone to lie down on the ground and be very still. This was a problem for the young family, as the 4 yr old son was still strapped on his father’s back and the daughter was strapped to mother’s hip. There was nothing they could do, the father laid down on the ground with his son on his back, the mother did the same, while she smushed her daughter’s face onto the ground so she would not make noise. They were on the ground for several minutes before all the trucks and people had passed them. Narrowly evading the communists, they breathed a sigh of relief and continued on their journey to the Mekong River.
Once they reached the Mekong River it was not completely safe there. The communists knew people were escaping Laos so as a deterrent they planted mines on the shore of the river. Before approaching the river the leader of the group used his flashlight to signal to the people helping from the Thai side of the Mekong River. Once the all the clear signal was received, a small boat was sent from the Thai side to pick up the group and bring them to Thailand. Before the boat made it to shore, someone used their paddle to scan for any mines, when it was cleared they shored up. The man on the boat quickly said he could only take a few at time but would return for the others. He pointed to the young family and said they were would be the first to go. Not hesitating the young family quickly jumped in the boat and started their way to freedom.
The boat ride to Thailand is a big milestone as many have been caught at the river and killed. Making it across the river gave the family hope. They knew they weren’t completely out of woods yet as they still had to travel to the refugee camp. They were told that once refugees make it to the camp they will first be imprisoned by the Thai government before being allowed in the refugee camp. When they finally reached the refugee camp fence they found it was closed for the holidays. Who knew they were shutting for Christmas and New Year’s? The family along with about 10 other people sought shelter in a small hut in a neighboring rice patty field. They would stay at the hut for a week before the refugee camp fences were re-opened.
When the refugee camp finally opened the family went there ready to be sent to prison first but to their surprise the police officer of the camp did not imprison the family. Instead he allowed them in the camp freely and imprisoned the others. The young family did not question the police officer and carried on into the camp as he instructed them to do. The family registered at the camp as refugees hoping that this would bring them freedom in another country.
The Thai refugee camp would be home for the family for 1 year. During the course of the year, some friends, cousins, uncles, aunts, and other relatives of the young family would later join them in camp. They all traveled through the dangerous Lao jungle in search of a better life. Conditions in the camp were horrible; people lived in poverty and were given small rations of rice daily. The family made do with what they had; the wife had a small garden for food and the young father and his cousin (who also had a family with 2 small children) built a hut house which the 2 young families would share while living in refugee camp.
The family was very lucky that they only had to stay in the camp for 1 year. There are others that have lived up to 5 -6 years in the refugee camp. On January 9th 1980, about a year from when they first made it into the camp, the family was granted refugee status and being sent to the US to start a new life. The family arrived in the US on January 18th, 1980 with no money in their pockets, did not speak English, with nothing but the clothes on their backs, but a lifetime of dreams ahead of them.
The everyday hustle and bustle of life I go through is nothing like what this family had to endure. I am sure there are countless stories like this family that could be shared that would make any of us think twice about our problems and be thankful for what we have because others are not as fortunate. The fights over cheap TV’s during Black Friday at Walmart is just so irrelevant when there are people even still today that suffer in refugee camps in parts of the world.
Whenever I think about this story it makes think about what’s really important in life how thankful I am to be where I am today. I am so thankful to have such a brave father and mother. They were so courageous for escaping our country; knowing if caught they would be killed and going into the unknown to seek a better life for us.
When I ask my father what made him want to leave and go into the jungle not knowing if we were going to make it or not, he responded “ I saw what the communist did to our people, I know what they are capable of doing and didn’t want that for us. I knew very little of what was out there but I knew it was better than what was coming if we stayed.”
What are you thankful for this year?
*These are the only baby photos the 2 young children have