Lao immigrants share story of refugee experience

WORTHINGTON -- Khambao Thonglyvong was a young teenage girl when soldiers in the communist regime stormed into her family's home in Laos and took her dad away from them.

Thonglyvong family
Khambao Thonglyvong (front, right) sits with her mother, Inxiane Xayavong, and her three sons (back, from left) Ricky, Daniel and Dave Thonglyvong, in their home in Worthington. (Brian Korthals/Daily Globe)

WORTHINGTON -- Khambao Thonglyvong was a young teenage girl when soldiers in the communist regime stormed into her family's home in Laos and took her dad away from them.

That was the beginning of a journey that uprooted this family of four, left them struggling for survival and, several years later, ended happily with a reunion in a Thailand refugee camp.

Thonglyvong said her dad had been missing for about a year when the family received word that he had escaped from his captors and made his way into Thailand, where refugee camps were filled with hundreds, even thousands, of people who had escaped the spread of communism in Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia.

It took Thonglyvong, her mother and brother two years to reach the refugee camp, during which time her father had applied to the United Nations for the family to come to America.

After reuniting, they spent five months together at the camp before receiving their plane tickets to freedom.


That was in 1980.

"We came in a Boeing 747," recalled Thonglyvong. The plane was filled with refugees seeking the promise of a better life in the United States.

After arriving in San Francisco, Calif., the family of four was flown to Philadelphia, Pa., by the agency that sponsored them to come to America. They remained there for seven months before learning from cousins already living in Worthington that there was work available at the local Campbell's Soup Co.

They came to Worthington in March 1981, and moved into a home on 14th Street. Thonglyvong, then 15, said she walked to school every day because at that time, her dad didn't know how to drive a car. The English language was also an issue.

"My dad knew a little bit," she said. "I knew a little bit of English that I learned in school in Laos. My dad (could) speak the most."

In the spring of 1983, Thonglyvong graduated from Worthington High School, although she didn't take part in the graduation ceremony. Instead, she was in the hospital, recuperating from back surgery.

"When I got out of the hospital, Mrs. (Mary Beth) Blegen came to visit me and brought me my diploma," said Thonglyvong with a smile.

A year later, she married Sana, also a refugee from Laos who found his way to Worthington.


"We grew up together in Laos," said Thonglyvong, adding that Sana also moved to the community in 1981.

The couple has three children -- Dave, Daniel and Ricky. Dave graduated from WHS in 2002 and the University of Minnesota in 2006 with a degree in electrical engineering. He works full-time at a firm in Eagan, and expects to graduate in May with a Master's degree.

Son Daniel is a third-year student at the University of Minnesota, and wants to be a business teacher, while youngest son, Ricky, is a junior at WHS. He also plans to attend the University of Minnesota.

In 1999, the family traveled to Laos for a visit. It was the first time the three boys had seen where their parents grew up, and the first time they met their dad's family, most of whom continue to live in Laos today.

New opportunities

For many Lao refugees, Worthington has become a community of opportunity. While it welcomed Thonglyvong and her family here more than two decades ago, she is impressed by new ventures that help to integrate those of other cultures into the region.

"Right now, (Worthington) has a lot of organizations that offer help," said Thonglyvong, referring to the Nobles County Integration Collaborative, Community Connectors and Community Education's ESL classes.

"There was no Asian store (25 years ago)," she said. "We had to go to Sioux City (Iowa) to buy our rice."


"Now, there are a few Asian stores that have groceries that the other stores don't have," added David. Those supplies make it possible for Thonglyvong to make some of the traditional Lao dishes she grew up with.

The family also has a place to worship since the Lao Temple was established four years ago.

Thonglyvong, who has worked at First National Bank of Brewster-Worthington since 1995, is thrilled with the progress.

"We are very happy to live here in Worthington," she said. "It's a lot better than where we came from."

Julie Buntjer became editor of The Globe in July 2021, after working as a beat reporter at the Worthington newspaper since December 2003. She has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism from South Dakota State University.
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