Category: Immigration

Journey to Freedom

By Serretta Malaikham

Manichanh Sonexayarath feeds her husband Khampoon Sonexayarath. Manichanh became her husband’s sole caretaker after he suffered a stroke years prior. (Photo by Serretta Malaikham)

During the Cold War, my parents Manichanh and Khampoon Sonexayarath had chosen to flee their home in Laos, a country that was being treated as collateral damage. The country was neutral until it became a battleground between the United States and the Soviet Union. Today, Laos remains the most heavily bombed nation in history, with more bombs dropped there during the Cold War than all of World War II combined. 

Laos is a small landlocked country that is bordered by China, Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia, with the Mekong River flowing on the Western side. The larger countries that sought after Laos found interest in taking control due to the valuable trade route through Southeast Asia that the river provided. By 1975, about a tenth of the country’s population was dead, which equates to 200,000 people. Miraculously, my parents were amongst the few who managed to escape, leaving behind their friends, family, and the life they were beginning to build together. 

“I thought I was going to die,” said my mother, Manichanh Sonexayarath. “I didn’t think I was going to become a person. They were killing everyone from left to right.” 

Khampoon Sonexarath, 19, after graduating from the Royal Lao Airforce academy around 1975 as an airplane mechanic. (Courtesy of the Royal Lao Airforce)

Their journey began in the south of Laos, starting in a city called Pakxè. My father moved to the city after graduating from the Royal Lao Airforce academy as an airplane mechanic. There he met my mother and they got married after a few months of knowing each other. Shortly after, foreign invaders began to infiltrate the country, prompting their escape. 

They headed north towards Savannakhet through the countryside, traveling only at night to lower the risk of being seen. If the invaders were to catch them fleeing the country, they would be shot on sight.

The two traveled by either car or on foot, hiding in several different safe houses along the way until they got to Savannakhet. Once there, my parents met with a man who helped refugees get to Thailand on the other side of the Mekong River on his houseboat. 

Khampoon Sonexayarath, 64, sits in his home. Sonexayarath suffered from a stroke years prior which caused kidney damage. (Photo by Serretta Malaikham)

“I was crying and shaking so hard because the current was so bad,” said Manichanh Sonexayarath. “The water rose up and flowed so hard which caused tree branches to stick out from everywhere. I thought our boat was going to flood and sink.”

Fortunately they made it to the other side of the river where they were greeted by landscape workers, who gave them shelter for the night before taking them to the Thai Embassy. American soldiers were stationed at the embassy to help relocate refugees to the country of their choice. My parents were both infatuated with the idea of the “American Dream” and decided that was where they would go. 

They were sent to a refugee camp in Nashville, Tennessee where they were given housing and whatever support they needed in order to start their new lives. My parents spent about 10 years in refugee housing before they were able to save enough money to buy their own home. 

They are fearful of returning to Laos due to the possibility of my father being arrested for treason since he was a former soldier who chose to flee for the safety of his family. 

Khampoon Sonexayarath, Serretta Malaikham, and Manichanh Sonexayarath inside of the Wat Lao Buddharam temple located in Murfreesboro, Tenn. (Courtesy of Tommy Sonexayarath)

When asked, they both said they are extremely thankful to be in the United States. “Of course I think about Laos but I can’t go home,” said Manichanh Sonexayarath. “Now they are Communists. Everybody. I love it here in America so much.” `

Serretta Malaikham is a Senior Communications major at The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. She is passionate about photography and has worked as Assistant Photo Editor of the University Echo. She has a love of photography for its ability to capture life in its raw and pure essence, which is why she aspires to become a photojournalist after graduation. You can reach her at

One Immigrant: The Story of Celeste Varagona

One Immigrant: The Story of Celeste Varagona tells the life story of Italian immigrant, Celeste Varagona. Ms. Varagona teaches piano and lives in Oak Ridge, TN. She regularly  travels to Chattanooga for piano competitions.

About the Storyteller

Rachel McIntyre Smith.
Rachel McIntyre Smith

One Immigrant: The Story of Celeste Varagona was created by Rachel McIntyre Smith. This multi-media piece was made in COMM 4750, Photojournalism 2, during the Fall 2017 semester.

Rachel McIntyre Smith is a junior Communications and Spanish major at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. She is a member of the Brock Scholars program and serves as the student trustee on the University of Tennessee Board of Trustees. After graduation she hopes to pursue a career in songwriting.

Copyright 2017, Rachel McIntyre Smith, all rights reserved.