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Governor Ray, Asian refugees speak at Schaap book signing

August 28, 2006

Book Signing

A generation has come and gone since the end of the Viet Nam War, but those who were there still remember.

Robert E. Ray, Iowa governor during that period of U.S. history, is one of them: as an honored guest at a book signing Saturday in Sioux City, he had the opportunity to share his recollections and hear from refugees who became American citizens after the 1979 Iowa sponsorship initiative that brought homeless refugee families to the U.S.

The stories of 12 refugees are told in detail in the new book, Crossing Over: Stories of Asian Refugee Christians, written by author James Calvin Schaap, Sioux Center, and published by Dordt College Press. The book was dedicated Saturday at the Lao Unity Church, Sioux City, with many of the featured Asian refugees in attendance.

“You are Americans and we are proud of you and proud of our country,” said Ray, who was governor of Iowa for five terms, from 1969-1983. Ray recalled with the group a Sunday night about 30 years earlier when he saw a TV report by Ed Bradley with refugees literally being pushed away from shore and drowning as U.S. troups were pulled out of Viet Nam.

His reaction was “We can’t turn our backs, we have to do something.” Ray drafted a letter to President Jimmy Carter saying Iowa would take more refugees, and then accompanied Vice-President Walter Mondale to an international conference regarding the “boat people,” which included Thai Dam people who had no country and had been helpful to Americans in Viet Nam.

“Representatives from all over the world talked about the tragedy of what was happening,” Ray recalls of the conference, but no one offered to do anything. That’s when Mondale and Ray stood up and made the offer to take 168,000 more refugees, allowing the Thai Dam to resettle as a group in the state of Iowa.

One of those refugees, Dinh Van Lo, Des Moines, was present to thank Ray for his courageous act as governor. “I thank you for saving our lives,” said Van Lo, calling Ray a great man and leader. “When we arrived in Iowa you not only opened the state, you opened your hearts.”

Former Gov. Ray concluded his remarks by saying the refugees Iowa took in went to work and have benefited Iowa, and have proven that Iowans really do care and work together. “Don’t let anyone tell you Iowans aren’t kind and generous, because they are.”

The book, Crossing Over: Stories of Asian Refugee Christians, tells the stories of a dozen refugees and the Americans who took them in. They are:

Khay Baccam, Sioux Center, who sold goods on the black market in Vientiane, Laos, and barely escaped death as a prisoner at Ou Tai prison camp;
Pahn Anolouluc, Sioux City, who escaped from Thailand with his mother, and last saw his father as he was arrested and sent to a “re-education” camp;
Kongkham Saengthammavong, Sioux City, who as a military policeman in Laos was sent to a prison camp after the communist takeover;
Dokmai Vongphakdy, Sioux City, the only survivor of eight siblings, whom a witch doctor said must be taken from her mother to prevent her from also dying;
Somphet Southaya, Sioux City, who moved from one Laotian jungle camp to another before coming with his family to America;
Keo Phommarath, Sioux City, who grew up in the Buddhist faith but now leads Lao Unity Christian Reformed Church in Sioux City. Keo crossed the Mekong River from Laos, while his wife, Boonjun, came from Thailand, orphaned at the age of one.
Sohn Dedthanon, Worthington, whose chance meeting with a Thai missionary led to his ministry as a pastor of the Lao Church of Worthington;
Sawan Siri, Worthington, a Laotian who avoided conscription into the military by fleeing to a refugee camp and then to the U.S.; and
Bounma Sisombath, St. Paul, who fought alongside Hmong peasant guerillas for two years, lived in a refugee camp and came to the U.S. with a wife, nine children, two nephews and his mother.

“In Crossing Over, James Schaap narrates the lives of Lao, Tai Dam and Vietnamese people torn up by festering war in Southeast Asia and reborn on the other side of the world,” said Rev. John Rozeboom, executive director of CRC Home Missions on the book cover. “I am, I believe, a different person for having met Dokmai, Kyah, and the Sisombaths and all the others, people whose coming from Asia through unimaginable trouble to live here as Americans blesses us and our land. Crossing Over reminds me that America does its best and God’s best when it works to welcome, not keep out, the wanderers and homeless of the world.”

“It was a joy and blessing to do these stories,” said author Jim Schaap. “In the process, these individuals helped me understand them … I know more about Laos and Thailand and problems immigrant people face in a new world. I know more about the verifiable differences the Christian faith makes in the lives of believers, and yet I understand more vividly how our human nature is similar, no matter what the color of our skin or the nature of our faith. Asian-American or not, you’ll be moved, I hope, by the humanity of these stories.”
Following the book dedication, a reception of authentic ethnic food was served by the Laotian hosts.

The book Crossing Over: Stories of Asian Refugee Christians is available at the Dordt College Bookstore and from other area book outlets and on-line book outlets (ISBN 978-0932914-67-5).

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