Memories of a "secret war" 30-plus years ago in Laos still haunt refugees living in Minnesota. Their stories will be part of a national exhibit opening this week in Minneapolis.
The little girl in pink napped peacefully in her grandmother's lap Tuesday as the grandmother described the horrors that drove her from Laos to Minnesota.
The toddler's eyes remained closed as Chomsy Kouanchao spoke of the bombs that rained on her village. Of having to hide for days in a large ditch to escape the fighting. Of living in a squalid refugee camp in Thailand and then crossing the seas and starting a new life in a bewildering land.
"I weep in my mind all the time," she said.
The trauma was more than three decades ago, but for Kouanchao and thousands of Laotian refugees like her, the scars remain.
Their stories -- rarely told -- are captured in a drama that is part of a groundbreaking exhibit opening Thursday at Intermedia Arts in south Minneapolis. The play, "Refugee Nation," and the "Legacies of War" exhibit examine the impact of war on Laotian refugees and their children. Organizers say it's also part of a larger effort to spotlight a little-known chapter in U.S. history that led to the resettlement of 400,000 Lao and Hmong people in the United States.
"The older generation, we found so many of them feel that no one understands who they are and why they're here," said Bryan Thao Worra, a local writer and Lao Assistance Center of Minnesota staff member.
During the 1960s and 1970s, Laos became a battleground in a covert war against communism conducted by the U.S. military. Villages were repeatedly bombed, creating a mass exodus of refugees.
Lao refugees began arriving in Minnesota in the early 1980s. Today, Minnesota has the nation's third-largest Lao-American population, with 25,000 residents living mostly in Hennepin County, according to the Lao Assistance Center of Minnesota.
Although the war ended long ago, the trauma continues.
Much like World War II soldiers who returned to America and refused to talk about what they had lived through, the older Lao refugees who rebuilt their lives here have kept quiet -- even to their families, Worra said.
Their children were small when they fled and many have grown up unaware of all that their parents went through.
That's created a disconnect between generations, said Malichansouk Kouanchao, a local artist and guest curator of the exhibit.
On display will be some unusual illustrations born of another communication gap.
In the refugee camps, villagers could not explain to the English-speaking camp workers what they had seen. So they drew pictures of planes and bombs and blood.
For decades, those sketches sat untouched in an office in Washington, D.C.
But recently, a chance encounter between the man who had the historic drawings in his office and a Lao-American woman named Channapha Khamvongsa led to their rediscovery. He told her to "do something with them," said Khamvongsa, who is now the executive director of Legacies of War and is in Minneapolis for the opening.
Malichansouk Kouanchao created two pieces of original artwork that also will be displayed at the exhibit, but her involvement goes deeper.
Her mother is Chomsy Kouanchao.
She and her mother both told their stories to the playwrights who wrote "Refugee Nation." For the daughter, hearing more of her parents' life has helped satisfy her hunger to know more about her past.
For the mother, sharing her story with her children helps her continue healing. She suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and loud noises such as doors slamming still unnerve her.
Two artists from California wrote the play, and traveled to Minnesota five years ago to collect oral histories from Lao refugees and their descendants.
The play is a first for the Lao-American community, which is said to be experiencing a cultural renaissance this year.
A children's book based on Malichansouk Kouanchao's journey as refugee and written by a local author is due out in November, and earlier this year, the first national Lao American Writers Summit was held in Minnesota.
Getting people to open up about what they had witnessed during the war in Laos was hard, said Worra, who introduced the playwrights to local refugees to interview.
"They said, 'It brings up too much bad memories. We are not ready to talk about it,'" he said.
Worra also detected resistance from people in the arts community who wondered if there was enough of an audience for such a play.
"No one's interested in Lao-American stories," he says he heard many times.
But the story needs to be told, and the war is not over, he said.
Many of the bombs dropped long ago did not explode and have made minefields out of villages.
The locals in Laos call them the "eight-eyed bugs," Worra said, with eight trip wires extending from each bomb.
"There's still a lot lurking under the surface," Worra said. "Even now, as elders are starting to open up and share what they went through, there's still a lot of pain."
Allie Shah • 612-673-4488
MIDWEST DEBUT OF LEGACIES OF WAR AND REFUGEE NATION
Legacies of War National Traveling Exhibition
Exhibit runs: Sept. 30-Oct. 24 at Intermedia Arts, 2822 Lyndale Av. S. in Minneapolis. Opening reception from 6 to 9 p.m. on Sept. 30 at Intermedia Arts.
A play, based on the stories of Laotian refugees and their descendants, presented in tandem with the Legacies of War exhibit.
Written and performed by artists Leilani Chan and Ova Saopeng.
Play runs: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 8-10 and Oct. 14-17. All performances held at Intermedia Arts.
Tickets: $10 in advance, and for students and seniors. $12 at door. Visit www.IntermediaArts.org or call 612-871-4444.