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Mani Vannavong

Mani Vannavong

Laotian Refugee and Metro Transit Employee

Born: Laos
Heritage: Laotian

I think that in everyone’s life you are going to have a lot of different challenges. you are going to pick a path. That pay may not go where you want it to go. Appreciate it and remember who you are and be proud of who you are. We came from a different way of life. I am the first generation here and my son is the first generation born here. I volunteered to do this because I want him and you to know to appreciated everything you have. You help enhance this world.

Mani Vannavong

Laotian Refugee and Metro Transit Employee

My name is Maniphonne Vannavong. They call me Mani for short. I was born in 1972 in Laos. My grandfather was the governor of our town that was known as the land of a million elephants. My family was the first to civilize their home there. My family has a long and rich history in Laos.

At this time there was a war going on between the U.S. and Vietnam, which is to the east of Laos. Because the United States was stationed in Thailand, which is west of Laos, we were stuck right in the middle. Laos was a neutral country and decided not to go to war. The United States used our border to enter Vietnam and because of this our people became involved. We became a reluctant part of the war.

People in Laos live in simple homes made of bamboo. There was no protection in the village from the bombs. Everyone came and lived in my grandmother’s house because it was the only house made of concrete. A couple hundred people lived in my grandmother’s house. My mother said I chose the worst fighting time to be born into. When a cannon went off, that’s when I came!

In 1974 and 1975, the communists came and took over the whole country. Since my father was part of the military and a leader in the community, he was captured and put in a concentration camp along with other family members. Anyone who was educated, had political ties or owned businesses were captured or killed. The communists got rid of people they thought would be a threat to them.

A lot of people from Laos decided to flee. My family included. When my father was released, we fled. In the morning my mother packed us all up and put us in the back of a van. A tarp was thrown over the van so the communists couldn’t see there were people in it. We drove close to the Thai border. We waited until the sun went down and at night we crossed the Mekong River. When you crossed the river you had to submerge yourself or pretend you were swimming, or they would shoot at you.

After we crossed, we lived in a refugee camp for a couple of years. It’s not really a prison but you are in a very small community. It is gated and you can’t leave the area. It is a holding place. The camp was set up by United States to help victims of the war.

We had to wait for people in the U.S. to sponsor us. Our family was so big it took a long time for a church group to take us. When we were sponsored we changed our names and identity and relinquished everything we had back home. We had to start over.

We arrived in Minneapolis in 1981 when I was 9 years old. Living in America was really tough when I first came here. In the 1980s there was a lot of anger towards people who were refugees. The only word of English I knew was “toilet.” I had a tutor for a few months who taught me English. At first I didn’t have a lot of friends and I was very quiet. But things did get better and although some people could be mean, there were others who helped.

My family now is doing well. Many of us went to school and completed high school and go to college. I have family living here, back in Laos, in Florida and in France. My dream is to reestablish my connection to Laos. We are rebuilding our family businesses back in Laos. I want to get my grandfather’s farm back in production. It is a big venture and will take a lot of investment.

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Honoring Mani Vannavong

I Chose The Worst Fighting Time

I chose the worst fighting time to be born into
When a cannon went off that’s when I came

I was born in the onset of the Vietnam War
My grandfather was the governor
Of the country established one thousand years ago
My family was the first to call it home
My country was neutral but got
pulled into war
Everyone stayed in grandmother’s house
There was no protection in the village made of bamboo
Her home of concrete gave us shelter from the war
The communists came and took over the whole country
My father was part of the military
He was captured, placed in a concentration camp
When he was released the family fled
With seven children we left early one morning
Put us all in the back of the van
Threw a tarp over, headed south to the border
At night we crossed the river called the Mekong
We lived in a refugee camp for a couple of years
Getting food and water, standing in line
Surrounded by barbed wire, sleeping on concrete floors
‘Till someone in the U.S. took us in
Living in America at first was really tough
We didn’t have the basics like shoes, coats, and hats
With a big family the sponsor took a risk
Good neighbors like you took us in
It’s now my turn to help others in need
Helping people is very important to me
I volunteer to raise money for the poor
For people in Laos and living here

Words by LARRY LONG with Lannie Segebarth’s 5th Grade Class of InterDistrict Downtown School
(Minneapolis, Minnesota)

© Larry Long 2005 / BMI