Life in general for any refugee is very difficult at the beginning while trying to resettle in the new home in America. Lao refugees are no exception. They have gone on the same path as their fellow refugees from Southeast Asia who had come to this country after the fall of the Indo-China war in 1975. Language barrier is not the only obstacle that these refugees need to overcome. They also need to make social adjustment and to assimilate into the culture, traditions and way of life of their new land.
Chanmala or Mali or Chanmala Phonpradith and her family spent
one year in a refugee camp in Thailand before arriving in the United States. Mali was only five years old. She told VOA she did not remember much about her life as a young girl: “There was so many things going on. I was lost, I was confused and don’t remember much, all I knew is that … we were sponsored by members of a church who resettled us in Maryland. They helped us to enroll in school and helped my parents to land a job. I don’t speak any word of English, neither did my parents. It’s very difficult for us to adjust, especially for my parents. They had to work very hard to raise us. As for us, children, we helped our parents to communicate with others, by interpreting for them.”
But one thing Mali told VOA that she remembered vividly is the recurrent nightmare that she had when she was a child. “In my dream…I saw black feet, I heard the sound of crying, and then silence” She didn’t understand what it was and why she would dream about the same thing over and over again for years.” Mali’s mother explained to her that when they were trying to escape in the silent middle of the night, Mali was carried by her grandmother and all the while she kept her head down. The black feet must have been her grandmother’s that she saw in the darkness. And the crying sound must have been her grandmother’s sobbing because the old lady was feeling very sad about leaving her beloved native land without knowing if and when she could return; and the silence was the stillness of the night.
Those dreams, the hardships and the
difficult experience in trying to fit in the new environment have made Mali a thinker and a writer of poems that reflect not only her own feelings, emotions and thoughts, but also her friends' and family’s situations and problems. Mali writes about love, pain, heartache and identity. One poem that she wrote, “Identity,” asks “Am I a Laotian for my parents to be proud of or am I an American for my friends by whom I wanted so much to be accepted, or am I both?”
Mali started writing at the age of twelve, but all her writings were either piled up in her closet or under her bed. No one knew about them. Until one day, during her last year in high school, Mali submitted her works to her teacher. To her surprise, the teacher told her that she has a gift in writing. That gave Mali confidence, and she has kept on writing ever since.
Mali’s great achievement is her poem “Christopher,” that won an International Poet Society award in 2003 and was published in the hard-covered “The Best Poems and Poets of the Years 2003. And second poem "Peter's Sky,” won the same award in 2005.
Please stay tuned for more of Mali’s work and personal life story in our next Lao Diaspora program.
Click on our audio file to hear more details.
For an additional information, please go to: