Torn from Home: My Life as a Refugee

I can identify with the title, and after seeing the photo of Khue Khang stands in front of a photo taken of him when he was 14 at the Nong Khai Refugee Camp, this I can say that I had been there, and done that, in fact, I too lived in Nong Khai Refugee Camp as a child.

Photo by Ragan Robinson

But it seems so long ago, the title above is a traveling exhibit at the Hickory Museum of Art.  The museum recreates a refugee’s life, and as for Khue Khang, it’s memories wrapped in barbed wire.  Khue Khang currently lives in Hickory, North Carolina, he was born in Laos, lived in two refugee camps in Thailand. He said that the exhibit rings true, the faux barbed wire is familiar to him. When he was 14, he was separated from his mother, father and brother.  He ended up at the camp where he and 20,000 other refugees called home.

He remembers passing through a gate like the one that greets exhibit visitors, its striped arm lowered to stop unauthorized people from coming in or leaving, this must be SorGorTor in Thai Language, a temporary holding place before sending them off to a refugee camp about 1-2 miles away. He remembers the registration station, where refugees signed up to get their limited food. He remembers the pots and pans sitting on rocks that encircled an open fire. (source and photo by Ragan Robinson)

TORN FROM HOME: My Life as a Refugee is presented by Howard & Pat Anderson and the Beaver Family Foundation. It’s a traveling exhibit on the world’s refugees takes school-age children and visitors of all ages on an inspiring, hands-on journey into the extraordinary lives of millions of children who were forced to flee their homes in conflict regions throughout the world. The exhibit, “Torn from Home: My Life as a Refugee,” gives young visitors and others an opportunity to gain a firsthand look into the often challenging realities faced by refugee children and their families, and yet experience the personal triumphs of rebuilding their lives in a new land. It showcases six exhibit areas: Home, Losing Home, Registration, Refugee Camp, Medical Clinic and Going Home, to read more.

And yes… going home and for some of us, home is where the heart is.  If you’re in the area, this exhibit is opened through May 2, 2010. I hope to visit in the near future, and perhaps it’ll travel to your part of town.


  1. Nye – I think most of laotians refugee can relate to this story. I was at the same camp as you, perhaps we walked pass each other 30 years ago:-). Our family stayed in SorGorTor for couple weeks prior to being transfer to the camp and I still vividly remember the poor living conditions. Believe it or not, my parents still kept those refugee mug shot photos from the camp.

    • seeharhed, It’s a small world, but I think you might have missed me there, and here I feel like old people talking about their past. 🙂

      I’ve always liked photos as long as I could remember and kept all the refugee camp photos in an album for my parents. It’s funny to see myself in those mug shot, I was a skinny little kid.

      • Dallas, it’s ส.ก.ท., sort of like a holding place to register you to the refugee camp. The living condition was real bad, but a bit better than living in Thai prison in Nong Kai, and I recalled that they’d feed you cabbage soup with pork blood cube. We stayed there for a couple of weeks also, but some of my sisters and I sneaked out to stay with my uncle’s family in the refugee camp.

        • Nye or Seeharhed – were there any Vietnamese left when you were at the Nong Khai camp? I heard they transfer all the Vietnamese to some other camp by themselves.

          • Dallas – I don’t remember seeing any Vietnamese at Nong Khai Camp. Most of the people at Nong Khai Camp are Lao and Lao Hmong. Even in the same camp they separate Lao Lume and Lao Hmong.

          • After our three to four months stay in Nongkhai Refugee Camp, we were sent into Nakorn Ratchasima (Khorat) Refugee Camp in late 1976.

            While they provided rice and vegetables for each family to cook in Nongkhai Camp, they actually made awful food (rice and mustard green soup) for everyone in Khorat Camp.

            Khorat Camp was an old jail with barbed wire around five buildings. Four buildings with open space housed many families together. The fifth building had individual cells. A family of 6 to 8 was assigned to two cells.

            During our 14 months stay, they allowed the refugees out of the camp once to walk to a nearby stream.

            • Hi Kim, thanks for sharing. Are you Vietnamese?

              I’ve to agree that Nongkai Camp, we were able to live a normal life, our family had a living area by ourselves and my sisters were even allowed to open a small vendor stand selling dry foods to bring in extra money. I went to school to learn Thai (this I already knew since I almost completed the 4th grade in Thailand) and English provided by the camp (free), and my older sisters went to learn how to sew, my parents had to pay for this which I think it’s worth it since all are good seamstress. My parents made sure we spent our time wisely. As for us, the hardship was not at the Refugee camp, but in Thailand when we first moved there but I’m glad that we did because it shapes us of who we are today.

              • Nye & Dallas:

                I neglected to say that there was enough room to roam around the five buildings. In addition, there was a kitchen, food distribution area, and a classroom. There was a large field to play soccer and volleyball.

                Thai officials set up a class to teach Thai to elementary age students. The adult refugees taught English and French to anyone who wanted to learn.

                I believe language barrier played a large role in the interaction between Vietnamese Refugees from Vietnam and camp officials/guards. Most Thai officials/guards spoke Thai only. There was one or two who spoke minimal English.

                Vietnamese refugees from Laos like my family had no problem since we spoke Thai.

                • Kim, I didn’t realize that they had moved the Vietnamese refugees to another camp, when we came it was in the 80s and I recalled one boy with reddish hair, I think he’s mixed Vietnamese/white and other kids were making fun of him. I saw many Tai Dum and Hmong, but mostly Lao.

                  Thanks again for sharing your story, I learn a lot more about how some of us made it here.

            • Hi Kim – I head the Vietnamese were not treated kindly when they moved to the other camp. Judging my the treatment you mentioned, it sounded more like you are a prisoner than a refugee. I had Vietnamese friends in the camp but they were were from Laos. I believe they had a Laotian name too so they were able to stay. I also remember that our parents didn’t want us to speak Vietnamese around other people. I didn’t knew it why back then but I knew now.

  2. as for me.. I was in camp NahPo. What’s really interesting is that my fiance was there too when I was there. We were both little girls ans boys. I probably crossed paths with him.

    I still got my refugee mug shot too. I was 3 years old then.

    • lady0fdarkness, it must be soul mate. 🙂

      I think those photos are priceless, the youngest photos that I have of myself is when I was 6 years old.

  3. This looks like a nice exhibit. Not many people are aware of the struggles refugees had to endure. Losing their homeland, being separated from families. And some rather not talk about it. So this is a good thing for the community to share. I’m glad the folks in NC have an open minded and warm hearts.

    They should make a documentary too – so more people can watch it. 🙂

    • Cambree, I think Hickory is becoming a small town melting pot, people are not as prejudiced as they used to be and it’s nice to see that Lao (Hmong) are being recognized, and I’m glad that some of us are not embarrassed about our heritage. I’m looking forward to visiting the exhibit and this would be good for Lee also.

  4. To be honest, I don’t know too much about my mums’ families’ time at the refugee camp (just bits and pieces now and then that I get told). But I’m pretty sure they were at one in Nong Khai too for a brief while. I know even less about my dads’ time in Malaysia as a refugee after leaving Vietnam by boat.

    Also was recently told that my great-grandmother was from Nong Khai, so I assume we had Thai relatives in that area (i’m not really too certain).

    • Will, I think it’s painful for some to talk about it, I recall that I didn’t like talking about it 10 years ago. Our family lived in Thailand for almost 4 years before entering the Refugee camp, so we were more settled than most that just fled from Laos, I heard stories that were so sad while I was there. But for us kids, I think we were more carefree and not much worries, our days passed by quickly. I do find that as they get older, they’re more open, my dad is telling me more about his life back in Laos now than he ever did while I was growing up.

      I didn’t know much about my family in Laos, and my last visit made me realize that I still have many in Laos and Thailand, it’s kind of nice and I feel more connected to them.

      • Nye, I started hearing more recently too about my family’s past. That bit about my great-grandmother being Thai, I only found out last year.

        I now remember my mum telling me she stayed in Bangkok for several years studying and living with her older sister. Which probably explains why she doesn’t have too many memories of it. And thinking back a bit more, I do remember my 5th Uncle telling me many years ago about the family traveling from Luang Prabang to Sayaboury on their way out of Laos.

        I guess it’s a matter of piecing all the various pieces i’ve been told about in the past. I also learned more from my uncles/aunts during the time my grandma passed away last year. Some of it was overheard stories told to my uncle who did not experience any of the departure from Laos as he was in Taiwan studying several years before and stayed there for several years until family were settled in Australia and sponsored him over.

        Everyone has different experiences of that time, so their stories vary. Eg: I was recently told that my eldest Aunt/Uncle (my mums’ eldest sister and her husband) left Laos later (they were living in Vientienne at the time) than the rest of the family. I think they arrived here either in the late 80’s or early 90’s, though her kids (aside from her youngest son) left earlier.

        • Will, your family must have been from Luang Prabang then, do they have Tai Muang Luang accent? I think that’s how we all learn about our ancestors, by talking about it and asking the right question. Maybe you’ll get to visit Laos someday.

          I think in the late 70s, many countries accepted Refugees from Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam but most were reluctant to come, I guess afraid of the unknown, but many took the chance. And by the 80s, the wait got a bit longer and the choices were limited, we almost ended up in Belgium, but then the US accepted us shortly after that, and we couldn’t choose which state, and ended up in NYC.

          It’s funny how we wanted to go to CA but they told us that the wait would be too long, we stayed 1 year at the refugee camp and my dad didn’t want us to stay much longer, those that came first got the first pick as to where they want to go, and us that came later had limited to no choice. And now we are free to go to which ever state that we want, but CA was not in the choice of states when we last moved.

          • To be honest, I don’t know about Lao accents 😛

            That said, I’m pretty sure their Lao accents are Muang Luang accent. Because my mum has mentioned a story about it in the past (or at least were at the time, maybe less so these days as they mix with other Laotians in Australia). All of my mums’ siblings spoke Chinese at home, and went to Chinese school. But they either learnt Lao through working in the family business (lower level of home was shop front) or just playing with the other kids etc.

            They have a habit of mixing Lao and several Chinese dialects together when they are together. So you can have a conversation starting in Lao, continue in Teo Chiew (my mums’ Chinese dialect) and then into Mandarin (Chinese dialect they learnt at Chinese school).

            It is a fairly large family (mum has 11 siblings, so 12 altogether including herself), with most of the family ending up in Australia. My 2nd Uncle and his family left first and ended up in Sydney. And my mum arrived in Melbourne with a younger brother and a younger sister in May ’78. I think not long after they arrived and settled in they received the message that my eldest Uncle (mums’ eldest brother) had passed away back in Laos (I’m not 100% sure on details but mum said he passed away alcohol related issues). That was their first shock, and then over a week later, they got a second message saying that their dad, my grandfather had passed away in Laos too. Which, i’m sure you can imagine was a total shocker to them being so far away just in their early stages of getting into their lives in a new country.

            My dad on the other hand had arrived in Australia about 6 months earlier from Vietnam via Malaysia (late ’77).

            You know what? My mums’ sister actually ended up in CA after she left Thailand with her family. And she was the only one in the family that went to the US. I think there are more family elsewhere overseas, but I don’t really know them (they are my mums’ cousins). Found out a few years ago that one of them is actually a Lao Buddhist monk!

            I think the population of Laotians (particularly the Chinese-Laotians) isn’t very big in Australia. Most know each other, or if at first they don’t then it is pretty quick to find a common friend they have. Usually in my mums’ case they end up knowing/are friends with one of her siblings.

            Imagine your life if you’d ended up in Belgium 🙂

            • Will, your mum’s family has mine beat, there’s 8 of us but all girls and I thought we’ve many. When we’ve a get together, it’s a full house.

              The reason that my dad decided in the last minute not to go to Belgium was because he was told by people at the refugee camp that you could never become a citizen or owning any property in that country. But I think it was just rumors because after checking I found that “a person may be naturalized as a Belgian citizen after three years residence in Belgium, this period is reduced to two years for political refugees and stateless persons,” which we were political refugees and stateless at the time. As for property ownership, I’m sure it’s not true also, just rumors going around.

              Living in Belgium? I’m sure it’d be interesting. This would sound kind of strange coming from a Lao person, but I’ve always wondered what it would feel like to live in Laos or Thailand.

              • Wow, 8 girls. My mums’ family is 7 guys and 5 girls. Was told that there was another Chinese-Lao family nearby that had just as many kids too. It almost sounds like they were competing on which family had the most kids LOL.

                It’s natural, I think to imagine how life may have been like if you’d stayed in Laos or even Thailand.

                • Will, my dad is part Chinese, my grandfather came from China and settle down in Thailand then moved to Laos. My mom didn’t want that many kids, but my dad wanted a boy to carry the family name and it ended up that he gave most of us a boy’s name, I’ve a boy’s name also. 🙂

  5. I too was a refugee although I do not remember anything while we were in the camps. I was too young to remember much although my parents still have a few of our refugee photos! I woud love to visit this exhibit.

  6. Nye – I am so glad that I have visited your blog this morning, and read the many stories you and your readers have to share here. It is wonderful to open up and yet it can be quite painful for some.

    There is a small Hmong community here in Hobart. Every Saturday they setup their most wonderful, fresh farmed vegetables and herbs (well, some brought in from Melbourne) stalls at the Salamanca Market. They are well accepted and form part of the vibrant and colourful community in Hobart. I don’t know much about them though. But, I am learning so much from this post of yours, and naturally other bloggers like See, Dallas and Salalao – into your Lao culture.

    I wish the Hmong community here is more revealing and share their hardships and experiences living in the refugees camps. There are other ethnic minorities in Hobart, especially from Africa refugee camps. Unfortunately, not much is known about their lives in their own homeland before becoming a refugee. I think it is a good thing to have such an exhibition like “Torn from Home: My Life As a Refugee”, and to share with the local community. It is eye opener for a lot of people, who take things for granted.

    • Victor, thanks for your visit and comments. I think people start to open up more when you see them often, I first learned about the Hmong culture from reading, and there are many Hmong in my area. I have a co-worker that has a rice paddy and I visited her rice paddy often to take photos, I’m looking forward to this spring and summer.

      Blogging is also a great way to learn about other people’s cultures, I learn a lot from reading your blog also, and looking forward to reading more. I’m glad that many readers don’t mind sharing their personal experiences, it’s that unspoken pain that we kept inside all these years, at least we’re not the only one, and by sharing we might understand our own people better.

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