Translator helps immigrants create a new life in America

 Phengta Phetsarath, who once fled communist Laos for her life,  now helps refugees emigrate and settle in the U.S.

Saturday, June 22, 2002
The Rochester Post-Bulletin

By Douglas McGill

Phengta Phetsarath began her journey to
Rochester by sewing $100 into the waist-
band of her skirt, saying a prayer to Buddha
 and giving her husband a hard choice. It was 1980. She had decided to flee Laos and
 its communist government, which had abducted her sister in the middle of the night.

The only problem was that Phengta had an infant son. And her husband, who had a steady job, hadn't yet decided to make the escape. It would begin with a short but dangerous boat trip across the Mekong River to Thailand.

It was a deeply desperate moment. Phengta had decided, firmly and finally, to flee for herself. But would her husband and her son choose to come with her? Or would she make her journey to her new life alone?

If she debated the pro's and con's of escape with her family at home, she knew she would never leave Laos. So on her own she paid a Mekong River boatman enough for passage for three, and one morning, only 15 minutes before the boat was to leave, she turned to her husband and said:

"Sir, I am leaving in 15 minutes. Are you sure you want to stay in Laos? I offer you two options. One is divorce. The other is to please come with me and our son. If we stay in Laos our entire life, we won't be able to build our future, and our son won't get a good education. Let's think of our son."

Ten minutes later, the whole family was on the boat.

Civic activist

Today, Phengta, a woman of 52 with preternatural optimism, a shy smile and a silver-toned laugh, is an American citizen, and one of Rochester's busiest civic activists. A paralegal at the state-funded Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services, Phengta is a key person in Rochester responsible for helping immigrants, refugees, and political asylum applicants through the first phases of becoming American.

Many courthouses, police stations, hospitals and schools in southern Minnesota have Phengta at the top of their Rolodexes, to call on for help as a translator during a crisis.

Besides her professional services, she works indefatigably as a mentor and guide for several hundred immigrants and their families in Asian social networks and through active participation in two local churches -- the Wat Lao Buddhist Temple in Farmington, and the Emmanuel Baptist Church in Rochester, which has many Asian immigrants as members.

She's also an entrepreneur. From her first days in the United States, Phengta has run businesses to help support her family in America and the extended family she left behind in Laos. Working with a crafts shop based in Vientiane, Laos, Phengta sells Lao and Hmong embroidery and appliques, story quilts, baskets, batiks, and other crafts out of her Rochester home. She sends home between $300 and $500 every three months.

She's proudest of a business she calls the "Cow Bank," which she started with a $5,000 investment in a cooperative run by two brothers who live in Laos. The company bought heifers because they offered a return on investment in three ways: they calved, they produced milk for sale, and their manure could be sold as fertilizer for hard-to-grow mulberry leaves, eaten by silk worms. Now the coop manages all three businesses and maintains many acres of mulberry leaves, which it both sells and uses on its own silk farm.

"I don't have a million dollars, but I do have ideas," Phengta says.

As one of approximately 9,000 immigrants who live in Rochester, Phengta is a standout success at assimilation in a rapidly diversifying ethnic community. She is at the vanguard of that community, because she exemplifies the last generation of immigrants to assimilate in the region, while also helping to guide and shape the next generation.

Education is the word

When she tells you her story, Phengta is crystal clear about one idea. She teaches this idea to her clients every day. To Phengta, this idea is almost synonymous with the promise of Rochester and of America itself. It's captured in a word that for her rings with the promise of fulfillment that she has sought from the day she crossed the Mekong River in a smuggler's boat.

The word is education. To Phengta, the word education means something magical.

To understand this better, consider a story. In Laos, Phengta's oldest sister was a fortune teller. She did this to make a little extra money in a country fast falling to ruin under the Communist Party. After 1975, when the Communists took power, people who disagreed too publicly with the government began to disappear. A co-worker of Phengta's husband who was indiscreet with his opinions was absent from work one day and later pronounced dead. The Communists' paranoia went much further than aversion to criticism. Anyone who knew, or who gave the impression of knowing, anything at all beyond what the Communists knew, was suspect. This included teachers, students, and professional people. Educated people.

And fortune tellers. Because Phengta's sister claimed to divine a person's future using flowers, candles and prayer, she was labeled a danger to society. One night she disappeared.

"A policeman and a party leader came and banged on our door," Phengta recalls. "They asked for my sister. My mom said, 'She is upstairs.' So they ran upstairs, handcuffed her, and took her away."

Six months later, she wrote her family a letter from a "re-education camp." Five years later, she was released, but by that time, Phengta had fled Laos with her husband and her son.

The moral of this story, to Phengta, is that the root source of violence is ignorance. Pure and simple, lack of education breeds senseless killing.

"The Communists had been in the war, but there were never educated," she says. "Their re-education camp wasn't college or university, it was just a place where you learned how to gather food in the forest and cut bamboo."

"Education is like the sun or the moon," Phengta says. "It brings a sparkle to our lives. How can you even see the world if you don't have an education?"

Anger is one source of energy for Phengta; pity is another. But gratitude is the strongest energy source of all.

Helping hands

When recounting her most dire moments, Phengta always makes a point of remembering an angel who somehow appeared several times to tip the scales, ever so slightly, in favor of her survival.

There was the time at the Nong Kai Refugee Camp in Thailand, when night after night drunken soldiers came to her hut and yelled, with her husband and son present, "You want to have a good time?" The soldiers' nightly visits became more rude, rowdy and demanding, until Phengta was fighting off panic all day long. The angel who appeared that time was a distant relative who had some standing at the camp, who mentioned the fact of her relationship to Phengta to the soldiers. The nightly visits stopped.

Another time, the angel turned out to be a United Nations official who began a crucial interview at the refugee camp by snapping at Phengta: "Why do you want to live in America? The Americans bombed your country and killed many of your people." With the fierce self-composure for which she is still known, Phengta responded: "Sir, you are correct. America made the war, but that doesn't mean that I hate the American people. America is a good place to hope and to get an education."

The official stamped her immigration papers "Approved."

It was nighttime when Phengta's flight to the United States arrived in San Francisco. From the airplane, she saw the lights of the city sparkling underneath her and she said to herself: "I survived. Thank God who brought me here."

When the plane landed and was taxiing to the dock, her son, Osah, asked over and over: "Are we in America? Are we in America?" And Phengta said: "Yes we are. Why don't you get some sleep?" The angel that time presented himself, of all places, in the San Francisco airport elevator as Phengta and her family made their way to the customs desk.

"I saw the electric light in the elevator and I said, 'This is the spirit that is shining over me. Thank you for giving me life in the United States.'"

From her first days in America, Phengta took every chance to take a class, to learn a lesson, to go for a degree. In Austin, where she was sent after a three-week layover in San Francisco, she dived into nighttime "ESL" -- English as a Second Language. Later she took reading and composition classes at the Austin Community College.

Work and school

Daytimes were spent cleaning houses, flipping burgers at Hardee's and waitressing. After four years, she moved with her family to St. Paul, where, after a few months, she got her first big break: a data entry job at Norwest Bank. Six months later, she was promoted to assistant supervisor, a job she held for six years. It was the only period in her life when school was put on the back burner. With Osah now going to high school, she had time only for her Norwest Bank job and, at night, more part-time waitressing at the Dynasty Chinese restaurant in St. Paul.

In 1991, the family moved to Rochester. Two years of entrepreneurism followed, during which Phengta worked fulltime on the "Cow Bank" and her import-export business. In 1994, she became a case worker at the Intercultural Mutual Assistance Association, Rochester's main immigration service agency. And in 1998, she started as a paralegal at Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services.

Osah, who worked for Domaille Buick in Rochester until last year, is now a manager at Burnsville Toyota. And her husband, Paul, works at Mayo Clinic in the maintenance department.

An American citizen since 1987, Phengta remains an in-between person in many ways -- not fully of one or another culture, but rather a translator between one and many cultures. That role has its good and bad points. Among the good points is a richness of life, a never-ending challenge that draws on her multiple energy sources and pays out well in terms of intellect and spirit and soul. Among the bad points is a nagging sense that she remains misunderstood in both of the worlds she inhabits.

"It's the Asian way to be strict with children, but our kids are growing up in America," Phengta says. "I tell the parents, 'You must listen to your kids. You must go to the PTA. You must give your kids a second chance. Or would you rather see them in jail?' Sometimes the parents say I am too Americanized. 'Phengta, you don't know where you came from.' I know they hate me sometimes, but do I get mad at them? No. Because I know what I'm doing. I only want to help them. One day they will understand."

Plea for understanding

Her biggest challenge, however, goes in the other direction -- educating Americans about immigrants and refugees. Phengta remains frustrated that amid their affluence and freedoms and good fortune, Americans often remain ignorant about people from foreign countries who are now their colleagues at work, fellow churchgoers, and next-door neighbors.

"Sometimes American people say 'Go home and don't take my job. Don't take my money. Don't take my land.' These people may not realize that immigrants pay taxes when they work in the U.S., just like a citizen does. So in this case, the American may not have the education.

"Also because we come from a country with different laws, we may act in a different way. We might dig up worms on somebody's front lawn, because in our country that is OK, there is no law against that.

"So all we ask is: Americans, please remember that we are all human beings. We immigrants are not perfect. But we are willing to learn. So, Americans, please be willing to learn. Please be willing to learn a little bit about us."

McGill is a former New York Times reporter, now a free-lance writer who lives in Rochester. He also produces the McGill Report on the Web at



Laotians in Minnesota

Saturday, June 22, 2002


About 41,800 of the 170,000 Laotians living in the United States live in Minnesota, according to the 2000 Census. Hmong groups say their number in Minnesota is closer to 70,000 and that the Census was an undercount.

The best-known Laotian group is the Hmong, the fighters from northern Laos who helped the United States during the Vietnam War. In return for their service, Hmong families were given priority for resettlement to the United States after 1975, when Communists took over Laos and began to persecute the Hmong.

Other Laotian groups that fled Laos include the Lao Loum or "lowland Lao," Phengta Phetsarath's ethnic group, and the Lao Tin, La Hu and Lao Theung. In most of the United States, the Hmong outnumber other Lao ethnic groups.

This is not the case in Rochester, however. Today there are 740 Laotians and 445 Hmong living in the city, according to the Rochester Olmsted Planning Department. Rochester has more non-Hmong Lao because in the early 1980s, large numbers of Lao Tin and other Lao groups settled in Rochester, along with Hmong. In the 1990s, many Hmong in Rochester moved to St. Paul, while the Lao Tin and others remained.

St. Paul has the highest Hmong population in the United States, about 25,000.

The Hmong in Minnesota arrived in two main waves. The first was the decade after 1975.

The second wave came in the 1990s, when thousands of Hmong moved to Minnesota from California.

Minnesota's receptive social climate and strong economy in the 1990s attracted Hmong who were better educated and used fewer state and county services than those who arrived had arrived earlier, state officials say.

The second wave doubled the number of Hmong in the state, from 16,833 in 1990 to 41,800 today. Hmong is now the second-most spoken language in the Minneapolis and St. Paul school districts. About 1,5000 Hmong families are on welfare in Minnesota, a higher rate than for other Asian immigrants groups, but less than for blacks or American Indians.

Thirty-four percent of Hmongs living in Minnesota have at least a high school education, according to a study by the Wilder Research Center.

Comparing Laos to Minnesota

Size of Laos: 236,800 square kilometers

Size of Minnesota: 206,207 square kilometers

Population of Laos: 5.6 million

Population of Minnesota: 4.9 million

Laos life expectancy: 53 years

Minnesota life expectancy: 77 years

Architectural highlight in Vientiane, capitol of Laos: That Luang Buddhist shrine, built in 1566.

Architectural highlight in Rochester: The Plummer Building, completed in 1928.

Laos climate: Rainy season (May to November), dry season (December to April).

Minnesota climate: Warm and hot season (June to August), cool to ridiculously cold season (September to May).

Current environmental issues in Laos: Unexploded bombs and landmines; deforestation; soil erosion; a majority of the population does not have access to potable water.

Current environmental issues in Minnesota: Deformed frogs; chemical wastes made in methamphetamine labs; global warming impact on Boundary Waters Canoe Area; ground water contamination; fish contamination.

Sources: The U.S. Census Bureau 2000 U.S. Census; Rochester Olmsted Planning Department; Minnesota Planning Land Management Information Center; Amherst H. Wilder Foundation; Center for Immigration Studies; Minnesota State Demographic Center.