When Dr. Palina Louangketh decided to launch the Idaho Museum of International Diaspora in Boise, she, like any good entrepreneur, already envisioned how the nonprofit would serve the public.
But Palina’s entrepreneurial skills didn’t emanate from solving hypothetical problems in a university business course; rather, they were forged from her harrowing two-and-a-half-week journey in 1979 following the Laotian Civil War.
Palina was three years old when her mother bravely snuck her and her five-year-old brother away from their Banh Tai Hai home in Pakse, and out of Laos, in order to evade the massacres by communist soldiers. The conditions leading to their ultimate escape had begun to escalate. In 1974, a new coalition government formed, comprised equally of Royal Lao and Communist Pathet Lao. By 1975, the Communist Pathet Lao had completely replaced the royal monarchy.
“My father, an officer in the Royal Lao military, was scheduled for reeducation, a requirement by the communists for Lao citizens who held rank or influence of any importance,” Palina explains. It turned out, however, that “reeducation” was a euphemism for the death sentence. “My father’s life was endangered. He fled to Thailand in 1976, a few months before I was born. He promised Mom that he would return to help us escape after she gave birth to me. Instead, he pursued a separate life, ultimately resettling in the United States. We never saw him again.”
When she realized he would not return, Palina’s mother devised an escape plan for her and her children. “Mom knew the dangers of fleeing into the woods and jungles as a single pregnant woman with a young boy, so she waited until I was born.” In fact, she waited until Palina was old enough to understand when to be quiet and when to hide.
In 1976, the Communist Pathet Lao began to tighten their grip. The Laos borders closed, and trade shut down. Food was hard to come by, and residents had to obtain rations from the communist government, which were often supplemented by the Soviet Union. Shortly after Palina’s father fled, all of Pakse flooded. “Mom had to walk across a flooded bridge in order to get food,” Palina says. “There she was, fully pregnant with me, walking into water that came up to her neck. She held onto a guide rope tied from one end of the bridge to the other.”
Communist soldiers patrolled the street corners. “People were constantly forced out of their homes throughout the day and night, and often, they never returned,” Palina continues. The Communist Pathet Lao held routine community meetings in worksites, schools, and temples to detect what residents were doing on a daily basis and incentivize them to snitch on their coworkers, neighbors, friends, and families. “No one could really be trusted,” Palina says. “If you deviated from what you said, it could be seen as a sign of a brewing escape plan. If the soldiers discovered later that you didn’t share what you knew, you and your family would be punished or even executed.”
The communists worked to reshape behaviors to their new norm. A women’s committee created by the Pathet Lao was tasked to coach neighborhood women on what was acceptable: no makeup, conservative clothes. Women would meet to confess their mistakes, making comments like, “I put on makeup, and I’m sorry. I’ll never do it again.”
Over time, Palina’s mother witnessed public executions and deaths throughout the community, observing a daily stream of bodies floating in the Mekong River. Some days, families who had drowned while attempting to cross the river could be seen floating with connecting ropes tied around their waists. “They reconciled that if they died trying to cross the river in boats, at least they would be together.”
At the local radio station where she worked, Palina’s mother began sneaking questions about how to escape. Who else fled? How did they get out? One day, her boss pulled her aside. “You’re going to get us killed,” he whispered. “They’ve already put you on a watch list of potential escapees.” This scared Palina’s mother. She continued to concoct her escape plan but went to great lengths to appear as someone grounded in the new norm of the communist rule.
“Instead of selling off her belongings, Mom actually worked extra hours to increase her income,” Palina reveals. “She bought new furniture to demonstrate she was staying permanently. She added an extension to our house. She even bought a buffalo to produce calves that she could sell.”
By November 1979, the boss slipped her a note about when to leave and where to go. The note launched their journey out of Laos.
All ports of entry and exit were heavily guarded, so the plan was for three escape guides to walk them through the wooded jungle, then cross the Mekong River to the Thailand border. They would not be allowed to speak or venture off the path for any reason. The guides were risking their own lives and would not hesitate to kill a crying baby along the journey, if they sensed that the noise would expose them. “This was the main reason why Mom decided to wait until I was old enough to understand her orders and not cry uncontrollably like babies might.”
Palina describes how her mother prepared for the guides. “Mom heard that the escape guides who helped others flee were in it for the money, so she paid the guides in advance. In addition to the money, my grandma sewed pieces of gold jewelry into our clothes, in secret hiding places. In a way, the jewelry was more valuable, since paper money from the old government would soon be replaced by the new. Precious metals could be sold.”
It would take over two weeks to slog through the jungle. “Our main mode of moving from one place to the next was by walking. We walked constantly, with rest stops here and there,” Palina says. “When we saw communist soldiers in an area, we hid motionless behind bushes and trees. We stayed off well-traveled paths, walking in woods and jungles or rural and remote areas. Sometimes we pretended to farm in rural rice fields until we could move to another forested area.”
They isolated from others trying to escape. “Sometimes we slept in trees during the day, to avoid being detected while we rested,” Palina recalls. “We also slept near various massacre sites, where the communists patrolled less for escapees due to the stench of decomposing bodies.”
Palina’s mother held her children close in her arms. “Don’t look. It’ll be over soon. We won’t see them anymore. Stay strong. Death is part of the life cycle,” she whispered to them. “I suppose it was Mom’s way of helping my brother and me cope by saying things that might help us normalize the visual of dead people,” Palina conjectures. “It still haunts me today.”
As the jungle journey ended, their water journey began at the banks of the Mekong at the Lao border, heavily patrolled by both the Communist Pathet Lao and Thailand government soldiers. The entourage climbed into a narrow boat hollowed out from a fallen tree, and the guides hand-rowed across the river, often against strong currents that pushed the boat sideways. Crocodiles and large scavenger catfish lurked in the waters.
The guides perceived Palina as a burden because she was three years old and coughed a lot, due to asthma. In the jungle, they had to carry her up several trees. About halfway through the long water journey, the guides stopped and asked for more money, due to the added trouble of transporting her. “Even though Mom had paid the guides in advance, she quickly grabbed my brother’s pantleg and bit off some threads to reveal a gold ring,” Palina said. “I cannot imagine what would have happened to us if Mom had said, ‘no more money.’ If she hadn’t given them the gold ring at that moment, they would have surely tipped the boat over and we would have drowned.”
When they got out of the boat in Thailand, the three guides told them to stay there for the rest of the night and then departed. “We had no way of knowing whether someone else would show up,” Palina recalls. “Indeed, early the next morning, a new guide met us and walked us into Thailand.”
Over the next two years, Palina and her mother and brother stayed first in the Ubon Refugee Camp in Thailand, then a second camp in the Philippines, while a refugee agency looked for a location where the family could resettle. “No one was able to find my father, but while we were in the Philippines, they located my uncle—my father’s younger brother.” Several years earlier, Palina’s uncle, a civilian, fled to the Thai refugee camp, later resettling in Rexburg, Idaho, which accepted refugees from Southeast Asia.
In 1981, Palina and her mother and brother were sent to Boise, where Palina spent the rest of her childhood. In 1988, the three of them became U.S. citizens. Today, Dr. Palina Louangketh is the bureau chief of the Bureau of Equity and Strategic Partnerships in the Division of Public Health at the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. A professor of ethics and multicultural studies, in addition to healthcare and public health studies, she teaches at Boise State University.
Although her family wore the same clothes throughout their escape from Laos, Palina’s mother packed a special item for her as a keepsake: a sinh noy (little sarong).
“She hired a Lao artisan in Pakse to weave on a loom a unique sinh made from Lao cotton, with silk designs of chickens in bright colors that would be enjoyed by little girls,” Palina explains. “For Lao women and girls, the Lao sinh is a piece of heritage clothing symbolizing who we are. No one sinh is the same, and my sinh noy was specially made for me. Mom knew that when we fled, our cultural heritage might become a thing of the past. She wanted to preserve our cultural identity so that my brother and I would know where we came from.”
As an advisor to the Lao community, Palina discovered through the Idaho Office for Refugees a breadth of stories from many other countries. Would there be a way to feature artifacts like Palina’s handwoven sinh that told the stories of other refugees and their experiences as new Americans in beautiful Idaho?
“In June of 2018, I woke up in the middle of the night and wrote nonstop six pages of powerful ideas on how to showcase other refugee stories and keepsake objects,” Palina says enthusiastically. This became the foundation of a strategic plan to create the Idaho Museum of International Diaspora. By that fall, momentum for this idea expanded across the state, and a group of colleagues at Boise State University helped Palina launch a stakeholders’ kickoff meeting in February 2019. The museum hopes to break ground in 2025.
The entrepreneurial qualities Palina mustered to launch the Idaho Museum of International Diaspora were shaped by her family’s escape—their lived experience—out of Laos and their journey as new Americans: the ability to create what is needed and the tenacity to carry it through; the ability to identify hidden problems in advance, take risks, and think on your feet, all at the same time; to remember the vision and its meaningful purpose.
“The Idaho Museum of International Diaspora is a great way to show what Idaho can do,” Palina proclaims. “The refugee stories are a beacon of hope and a reminder of the sacrifices that brought our cultures together. They now have a place to call home, where we can raise the next generation of compassionate human beings.”
Jane Chu describes the contributions of immigrants to the United States through her stories and illustrations. A practicing visual artist, Chu served as the eleventh chairperson of the National Endowment for the Arts. She lives in New York.