This year the Lao approach 30 years since we first arrived in the United States after the war in our country.
As a Lao woman, community has always been important to me, and helping others. It’s a value and tradition my family raised me with, one I want my children to grow up with, too. In Laos, the major religion is Buddhism, but we also make space for many other beliefs. We value harmony and community, but we also respect an individual’s right to make choices for themselves. Buddhist teachings say there is great suffering caused by greed and anger. As refugees, we see the truth of those statements.
It’s difficult to apply solutions of moderation and balance in America. Instead people celebrate greed and acquisition. Even in the middle of social crisis, no one is interested in changing, just getting back to the way things were. But those ways led us to this problem in the first place. As refugees, so many people want us to follow that dream, or we’re made to feel we’ll never truly belong here.
In America, I can see many people from other wars, other countries, also trying to rebuild and facing many of the same things Lao face. There are the Karen and Hmong, Tai Dam, Khmer, Khmu, Somalians and Ogaden, Vietnamese and Kurds and Liberians. So many voices!
We could learn so much from each other, but we keep systems in place that divide us against one another. We do not get many chances to collaborate constructively. It’s rare to see even small coalitions working together to ask for true reform that can give everyone fair opportunities, especially women.
I work for a nonprofit to help Lao who have trouble accessing the American system. It troubles me to see so many falling through the cracks, especially elders and young families. I know other refugee women face similar problems but we’re given so few resources to work with.
American leaders and activists push for reforms without asking the thoughts of refugees in health care, immigration, education, economics and every other sector. But our voices are important, too. Someday, some of us will become citizens. If politicians and other people keep making choices that make it impossible for us to participate, we lose so much potential and we cannot contribute the best knowledge and skills we have to make this a good country. I’m not asking for handouts to our communities like beggars, I’m asking for us to invest and see the value in all our voices.
Chongchith Saengsudham is the Family Resource Specialist at the Lao Assistance Center in Minneapolis.
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