Teng Thao serves as a board member for MCC Central States and is an elder of Hmong Mennonite Church of Colorado in Westminster, Colorado. This is his story of being uprooted as a child.
Although it was 40 years ago, it gives me a heart for refugees who MCC helps today around the world. This is my recollection of my family’s journey to find peace and freedom.
My childhood memories of Laos feel like a dream. I remember playing every day from dawn until dusk with no worries, no responsibilities and no schooling. We moved often, and I thought that was normal, unaware of the war in our country and the displacement of people. The year was 1978, in a small village outside Vientiane, Laos where we prepared our daring escape.
It was a typical morning before dawn, my parents woke us up and we quietly left our village with some of our family members and belongings. We walked by foot all day until dusk in the dense forest of Laos. By nightfall, we met up with the rest of our family members, other Hmong families, and several armed guards. The armed guards were mercenaries hired by my older brother to guide us out of Laos. As a child, I had no idea where we were going or what we were doing. All we were asked to do was to keep quiet and walk as much as we could. My parents had planned an escape from Laos to Thailand to avoid prosecution from the Laos Communist government for assisting the United States, like many other Laotian families had. They had planned this daring escape for some time. The reason why only some of us left the village at first was to avoid alerting the communist soldiers in the village.
Our journey to freedom was torturous. I remember losing one of my shoes in a puddle of mud. We were on the run and had no time to find my shoe. The rest of the journey I was barefoot. My younger siblings were being carried by my parents or older brothers and sisters while I mostly walked. The terrain was rough because we had to stay away from trails to avoid communist soldiers. I remember sleeping in a cave with bats flying and insects crawling around at night.
The final stage of our escape was to cross the Mekong River into Thailand. It was the rainy season and the Mekong River was tumultuous and fast flowing. My parents and older siblings cut down banana trees and tied them together to make rafts for us to cross the river. Many Laotian people had died trying to cross the Mekong River due to drowning or being shot at and killed by communist soldiers. We put our faith in the banana tree rafts and the timing of our crossing. It was late into the night when we entered the river with our homemade rafts. My parents and all the young children got on the rafts while some of my older siblings held onto the sides of the banana rafts during our crossing. The journey across the Mekong was frightening but we manage to get across safely.
When dawn broke the next morning, we realized that we had landed near a Thai Buddhist Temple. We went into the temple to seek shelter. The monks notified the Thai authority and the Thai authority came and took us into Ban Vinai Refugee Camp, the biggest refugee camps for Laotian immigrants during that time.
Thao's refugee ID card for entrance into the U.S. taken in 1979.
MCC photo/Courtesy of Teng Thao
My family at the time consisted of four older brothers with families of their own. My mom, father and stepmom. There were eight children that were under 18 years old. As we transition to a whole new life in the refugee camp we applied for immigration to the United States with my second oldest half-brother and his wife. While my father and stepmom applied as one family. Several months later we were granted permission to the United States and began to prepare for our next destination. We departed from Thailand and landed in St. Paul, Minnesota during the summer of 1979. Since we were the first family from our immediate families to leave for the United States the anxieties and fears were high. We didn’t know if we would ever be reunited again but we took that leap of faith anyway.
Growing up in the United States was difficult for me, my mom, older brothers and my sister in-law. We were sponsored by a Catholic family in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota. They were a wonderful family with such a big heart to open their home and welcome strangers like us in. I remember some of the first meals they provided for us and we had never seen or tasted anything like it before. We had cereal, milk, orange juice, eggs, pizza, hamburger and other American foods. I remember the food was very difficult for us to adjust to. Some of the most challenging things for us to adjust to were the winter months in Minnesota and the American culture.
Several months later, in 1980, most of my family had been granted permission to relocate to the United States (spread out in Portland, Oregon, Lawton, Oklahoma, Minneapolis, Minnesota and San Diego, California). My father and step-mom were relocated from Thailand to San Diego, California. We would all move to reunite with them in November of 1980. In San Diego, we would attend our first American Christian church.
Fast-forward to present day, I am the head elder of Hmong Mennonite Church of Colorado in Westminster, Colorado. My wife and I have four children.
My struggle fueled my perseverance. My desire for a meaningful life lead me to Christ and Christ allowed me the opportunity to be a church leader.
I am passionate about the work MCC is doing. Being a board member of MCC Central States is a way I can contribute and continue to spread the seed of love.