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War stories: US allies find their lives changed 

The folks at Wat Lao Asokaram temple meet nearly every Sunday. On this particular Sunday in October, Buddhists were acknowledging the monks, some of whom were completing a period of silence. This phase in their training requires that they live in silence for several months. The celebration included a period of prayer followed by a huge feast.

Most of the Buddhists who visit Wat Lao are Laotian, but everyone is welcome.

Second of two articles.

When an Iraqi builder was hired by the US military to renovate schools and health clinics, writes Scott Wilson in the Washington Post, his name began appearing on walls in his neighborhood. It was meant as a warning to those who support US troops.

The builder and his family fled to Syria.

Oupekha Keomuongchanh (O-pea-ka Cow-mung-john) and Farid Ferdows (Far-reed Fur-doughs) can empathize with the Iraqi builder. His story is a familiar one.

For thousands of foreign contract workers and soldiers, being allied with the US military can have unpredictable outcomes. In the chaos of war, their fellow countrymen may view them as heroes one day and enemies the next. And once the US military completes its mission and leaves, the fate of these soldiers and workers isn't clear. Staying in their homeland can be fraught with risk. But despite having supported US troops, they're not automatically granted asylum here.

Keomuongchanh grew up in Laos while the region was still under French influence. He earned his bachelor's degree in mathematics from the University of Paris. But he returned to a country quickly being drawn into a war with communist North Vietnam.

Ferdows recently served as an interpreter for the US army in Afghanistan. He's now attending MCC. One of his ambitions is to return to his home in Afghanistan and help rebuild his country after years of turmoil.

Both men live in Rochester. Though their paths here have been separate, they have one thing in common: experience in US wars.

After the fall of Saigon in April 1975, Keomuongchanh found himself in a precarious situation. As a regiment commander of the Royal Lao Army working side by side with the US and South Vietnamese armies in Vietnam, he was considered an enemy of the state by the North Vietnamese. He couldn't stay in Vietnam. And he couldn't return to Laos, since the communist Lao People's Revolutionary Party was taking control of the country.

As South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia succumbed to communist control, Keomuongchanh's life was in danger. His wife, children, and parents were also threatened.

The Laotian soldiers "would come for you and say, We are going to give you a free education," says Keomuongchanh. "But you would either go to the re-indoctrination camps or they would send you to prison. If they suspected you cooperated with the US military, they would test your loyalty. They would say your father worked for the enemy and then hand you a gun and tell you to kill the enemy or they would kill both of you. These people were monsters."

Keomuongchanh knew that he had to leave Laos, but getting out wouldn't be easy. He had no money, so he couldn't bribe government officials. He pitched the US Army on keeping him on as a trainer, stressing his advanced combat skills and reminding them that he had been sent to the US four times for training. But US military officials had no interest in him at that point, says Keomuongchanh, and they told him that at 37 he was too old. Besides, the US was by then cutting troop levels in the region.

Desperate, he fled to Thailand with his wife and seven children, leaving behind his parents, sisters, and brother. In Thailand, Lutheran missionaries came to his aid, sponsoring his immigration to the US, and eventually, he and his family arrived in Rochester with one suitcase. The Lutherans provided him with temporary housing on Pearl Street just off Monroe Avenue.

"Everything here was new for me," he says. The Lutherans provided a small amount of money each month and helped the family apply for food stamps. "But I had seven children," says Keomuongchanh. "That made nine of us. It just wasn't enough money. Every day I prayed to God for help. I thought if I came to America, all my worries would be over. But things were harder than ever."

What happened next, as Keomuongchanh tells it, was a remarkable twist of fate.

He went to StrongMemorialHospital looking for work but was told there were no openings. Exhausted and scared, he pled for help. "I have seven children and no way to feed them," he recalls saying. "I will do any job you ask."

Moved by his plea, personnel staff sent him to a doctor they thought might be able to help. "I was in his office for one minute," says Keomuongchanh, "before this doctor, this angel from God, looked at me and says: 'I've seen you somewhere before. How would I know you?'"

The two men had met at Lackland Air Force Base in 1966, where Keomuongchanh had been sent for training while he was working for the Army.

"He tells me, the world is too small for you and me, and that's why we meet again, and we both cry," says Keomuongchanh. "I knew from that moment on, everything would be okay."

Keomuongchanh secured a low-paying job at Strong, a second at McDonald's, and a third as a cook at a Chinese restaurant.

By the early 1980's,Vietnam was beginning to stabilize, but the killing and economic misery in Laos and Cambodia had grown worse. According to the State Department, more than 30 percent of the Laotian population was seeking asylum in Western countries. The US accepted more than 550,000 between 1980 and 1990.

Keomuongchanh estimates that as many as 3,000 of them made their way to Rochester, but his parents, sisters, and brother weren't among them. (Both his parents have died, and he hasn't contacted his brother, who still lives in Laos, fearing that it might jeopardize his brother's safety.)

Keomuongchanh and his wife bought the little house on Pearl Street that they once rented, and he found a better-paying job at Kodak as a technician. He helped found the Lao Association of Rochester. And he spent time each day aiding new arrivals from Laos, helping them fill out government forms, learn English, enroll their children in school, and search for jobs, housing, and transportation.

He also began an aggressive letter-writing campaign to US and United Nations officials --- which he has continued --- to try to ignite interest in his homeland. Of particular concern has been the Laotian government's crackdown on religion.

Now employed as a teacher's assistant in the Rochester school district, he was recognized in 2005 as paraprofessional of the year. An article in New York Teacher, the publication of the state teachers union, called him "a role model for both students and adults."

"Some of his students," said the article, "see him as a surrogate parent, because he supports them and their families with a unique skill and commitment to helping people."

On a clear Sunday morning in early October, two monks wearing traditional gold-colored robes and sandals are cutting flowers planted near the driveway of 55 Galusha Street in northeast Rochester. It's the site of the Wat Lao Asokaram Buddhist temple. Monks live in a second building on the property, a small two-story house.

Recognizing the need to better serve the small but growing Laotian community in Rochester, Keomuongchanh helped found the temple in 1993. Nearly all of the homes on Galusha are vacant and boarded up, and the temple and the house are like a tiny oasis, freshly painted and neatly landscaped.

Wat Lao is a simple, single-story, concrete-block structure at the rear of the property. Its doors are made of thick teakwood decorated with hand-carved cranes in flight. The roofs of both the temple and the house have gold-painted peaks like those Keomuongchanh remembers in Laos.

Inside the temple, the floor has been raised about three feet at one end of the room, creating an altar. There are dozens of silken pillows, and a large golden statue of Buddha is flanked by statues of the spirits Sariputta and Mogallana. Plumes of scented smoke and hundreds of lights surround the statues.

Guests are beginning to arrive for the morning's ceremony, which will honor the monks for completing their months of cleansing silence. It's like a graduation, and about 200 of the temple's members have come holding gifts: money, sticky rice, meat, vegetables, fruit, candy. They are for the monks, who live entirely dependent on the generosity of others.

The women are dressed in traditional silk blouses and skirts, many of them laced in threads of gold and silver. The men are dressed in contemporary shirts and ties, but some of the elders have red, blue, and green sashes draped around their shoulders.

One by one, the women carry their gifts into the temple. Some bring them in cardboard boxes. Others carry beautiful hammered silver trays and bowls hand-made in Thailand.

Shoes have been left outside, and in their stocking feet, temple members assume a place on the floor, their baskets in front of them. And the chanting begins, its sweet rhythmic sounds floating out of the temple for about an hour.

Afterwards, standing outside the tent, a young woman holds her restless 19-month-old son. She has been in the US for a few years, and while she likes the freedom of the West, she says she misses Laos.

"Things have improved," she says. "It's not as bad as it used to be. There are a lot of Japanese businesses there, not as many poor farm people. But I won't be going back. My husband has a job in China, and we move next month. My husband says China is the place to go. Used to be the United States, but not as much any more."

The temple gathering has drawn second and third-generation Lao immigrants. While Keomuongchanh has remained in Rochester, many of the families he helped settle here have since moved away. Fewer than 1,000 Laotians still live in Rochester, he estimates.

"Some of it has to do with the layoffs at Kodak and Bausch & Lomb," he says. "But a lot of them have moved to the Carolinas and Texas, to warmer climates."

Relocation has touched his family, too. Keomuongchanh pulls out his wallet and holds up pictures of his daughter and grandchildren. And then he shows her business card, proudly pointing to her name and title.

"They live in Chicago," he says, where she is a Bank of America vice president.

Speaking of US Military Action, foreigners In US Military Action

  • War stories
  • War stories

    Helping the United States changed the lives of two men now living in Rochester
    • Nov 29, 2006
  • More »


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