In this episode of our series, "Roots and Branches," Ray Soungpanya and Bouaphet Sygnavong, two leaders of the new Lowland Lao community in California talk about some of their experiences leaving Laos and coming to the United States. This was not too long after the fall of Laos in what is often called the Vietnam War, although in fact, the war included most of Southeast Asia.
Like many refugees from Laos - and indeed, from other Southeast Asian countries - both Ray Soungpanya and Bouaphet Sygnavong spent time elsewhere before entering the United States. Some lived for days, months, even years in refugee camps in places like Thailand. Others first fled to France (the former colonial power in the region). Ray Soungpanya was one of the first, if not the first, Laotian refugee to come to California. The United States offered itself as a country to receive these refugees because of its role in the war and its feeling of responsibility for those who had helped it. Soungpanya soon became a leader in the growing community, and helped found several organizations among the refugees. Bouaphet Syngavong, husband of one of the royal princesses of Laos and who had held a high position in the Laotian Ministry of Information, first spent time in Paris before coming to the United States.
Many people not from Southeast Asia are not aware that Laos, a small country, is home to many different ethnic groups who each have their own language, customs and culture. Both Soungpanya and Sygnavong belong to the largest ethnic group, the Lowland Lao - who as the term suggests, lived in the lowland of the country, along the mighty Mekong River.
Through this documentary, we get a glimpse of life there, the exodus out of the country at the war's end, the life of the refugees who eventually ended up living in the United States, and the difficulties the refugees encountered in order to become American citizens.