The end: Khammone 'Kham' Phommavong | 1950-2011

In a dangerous nighttime crossing of the Mekong River, he took his family out of Communist Laos to start a new life in Canada

The end : Khammone 'Kham' Phommavong | 1950-2011

Illustration by Julia Minamata

Khammone “Kham” Phommavong was born on May 24, 1950, in Vientiane, the capital of Laos. His parents, Khay and Khamdy, were rice farmers. As the fourth of nine children, Kham was put to work at an early age, and took pride in farming. When he was 12, though, his father died of unknown causes and the boy was sent to a Buddhist temple to live and study.

In 1975, the Communist Pathet Lao ended a six-century-old monarchy by imposing a socialist regime. At the time, Kham worked at a pharmacy run by an older brother. There, he met a nursing student named Oune. “The Communists took over,” says Oune, “and they were taking students away from their homes. My parents were afraid I was going to be taken away. They wanted someone to look after me.” Kham took on that role, and they married on May 14. “He was very nice, kind, and very happy,” Oune says. “Everywhere he went, he made people happy, made people laugh.”

Their first son, Todd, was born in 1976. By 1979, Oune was pregnant again with a second baby, David. The transition to Communism had been brutal, and Kham decided his family had to leave Laos. He hatched a plan to swim across the Mekong River to freedom in Thailand. He put his pregnant wife and son in a tractor tire inner tube, attached it to his waist with a rope, and used a bamboo shoot to breathe underwater while swimming his family across overnight. Boats were being targeted with machine guns, Oune says, and Kham thought the tire would look like just another piece of debris floating in the Mekong. Still, it was a dangerous crossing. “We had to hide from the Communists in our country,” Oune says, “and from the Thai soldiers who were sending people back.”

The family arrived at a refugee camp in Nong Khai, where David was born. Kham applied for refugee status in several countries, hoping to get to the U.S. “He knew it was the land of the free,” says David. A Christian organization at the refugee camp offered to help the family get out. “My dad was Buddhist, and didn’t know any English,” says David, “So whatever they asked, he said ‘yes.’ Are you Christian? ‘Yes.’ ” Kham was accepted by the organization, and though he thought the family was headed for America, they landed in Montreal in 1980. “It was very, very different,” remembers Oune. “We never thought something like this existed. It was so cold.” It didn’t matter, though, as long as they were away from Communist Laos. “We would always ask dad why we left,” says David, “and he always said it was so he could give us children a better life.”

They stayed in Montreal for over a year, living with a sponsor family, until Kham’s younger sister, Keoudone, announced that she had landed in Vancouver. As the older brother, Kham had to take care of her. The family settled in Langley, and Kham turned to mushroom farming. In 1987, another son, Peter, was born. By 1995, Kham had built a stable business, farming about 10 acres of land he had leased on two farms, while jointly operating a third.

But at the height of his success, Kham fell from a rooftop at work, and broke all his limbs. “It didn’t seem he would walk or use his arms again,” says David. The responsibility of running the business fell to Oune, who decided the accident had been bad karma and that the operation should be sold. In the process of dissolving the business, though, more tragedy befell Kham’s family. One of the farms he ran was burned down by an arsonist, and an electrical fire ruined the home that took Kham and Oune 15 years to purchase. “From the fire, we only had what was on our backs,” says David. “We started from zero again.” That didn’t deter Kham, though. “My dad always rose up, always picked up where he left off. He believed in his Buddhist faith, and that things happen for a reason.”

Kham spent about 2½ years in rehab, while Oune worked as a waitress at a golf club to support the family. Eventually, Kham was walking, and regained the use of his hands. “Despite all his hardships, he always found the silver lining,” says David. Kham returned to mushroom farming, though chronic pain made the work difficult. In 2003, the Phommavongs were able to buy a house again. On March 4, at 5:30 a.m., Kham and Oune were having breakfast in their Surrey home when their van was stolen from their driveway. Two days later, Kham awoke to the sound of someone stealing his Acura MDX. He dashed downstairs to investigate, and was hit by his own car. He died on March 10. He was 60.

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