30 Aug 2021
Laotian Association of Rhode Island
Forty years have passed since James Viengkone Phommasith escaped a Laotian concentration camp and fled to America with his family in search of the American dream.
Four decades later, some of the experiences he endured in his war-torn native country remain etched in his mind. He shakes his head as if to erase memories of the harsh conditions he experienced in a Laos concentration camp and during his escape to freedom, swimming through the Mekong River with his 1-year-old daughter on his back. Each stroke took them further from the conflict in Laos and closer to freedom. The duo emerged from the water in Thailand and boarded a helicopter that would take them to America.
Phommasith tries to forget, but he is unable to erase the past. His eyes fill with tears. The pain is evident in his face.
“At least we had food,” he said.
He arrived in America with his wife and two young daughters with nothing but the clothes on their back and hope for a better life. For three years, the Phommasith family, which grew to six with the addition of two sons, shared a one-room, third-floor apartment with another immigrant family in Allston, Mass.
He worked two jobs to support his family and started a jewelry company with his wife. While their children participated in activities or played in the park, Phommasith and his wife sat in the car and made jewelry. He worked round the clock to provide for his family. He earned his GED and dreamed of going to college, but there was no time and few resources.
“We struggled, but never gave up hope,” said Phommasith.
His hard work and perseverance paid off. He got a well-paying job as a machinist in Rhode Island and eventually was able to buy a house and send his four children to college.
“My goal was to send my children to college. I didn’t want the next generation to struggle the way I did. We are the American Dream,’ he said.
But Phommasith said it is not enough. The Laotian refugee’s past fuels his burning desire to help others.
His mission is to help the Southeast Asian Community in Rhode Island. As president of The Laotian Association of Rhode Island, Phommasith works tirelessly to help immigrant families adjust to America and build and sustain a legacy for future generations.
Depending On One Another
“The Laotian community in Rhode Island depends on one another and they depend on me for help,” said Phommasith.
The Laotian Association of Rhode Island strives to provide monetary support for families to help cover expenses related to the loss of loved ones and emergencies – which intensified during COVID-19.
When someone in the Laotian community dies, each of the organization’s members donates $5 toward funeral expenses. The minimal donations do not completely cover a respectful funeral ceremony or the lengthy list of support services that Phommasith put on the back burner when the demand for funerals increased during COVID.
“There’s a long list…some people need food, heat and so many other things,” said Phommasith.
Spearheaded by Phommasith, with support from the Papitto Opportunity Connection, The Laotian Association of Rhode Island will launch The Endeavor Fund, which will provide emergency relief funds and will help families weather the storm brought upon them by the death of a loved one. The POC investment will also be used to provide educational and cultural programs for Laotian youth.
“The impact of the Papitto Opportunity Connection’s investment will help maintain our preparedness – now and in the future,” said Phommasith. “As a result, even the most vulnerable members of the Laotian community can continue to pursue their endeavors, even in the worst of times.”
“I’m sad and happy,” said Phommasith. “I’m sad when someone dies or struggles but I am happy that if someone needs help now, I can help.”