Forty years ago, at the age of 15, Thongsai Vangyi and his family fled Laos.
Now Vangyi owns Thai Orchid restaurant in Petoskey. It’s quiet and calm in the restaurant. Busy and bright in the kitchen. Vangyi says his dreams have been simple: own his own business and provide for his family.
Vangyi’s father was a Hmong fighter in what is called the Secret War, a war fought between the CIA-backed Hmong military and communist forces in Laos.
Communist forces were closing in on Long Cheng, a CIA military base in Laos. When Saigon fell, ending the Vietnam War, the CIA pulled out of Laos as well.
The word went out that American planes would airlift Hmong military officials and their family members out of Long Cheng. Military families and Hmong people flocked to the airstrip, hoping to be evacuated.
It's estimated that tens of thousands of Hmong people came, but only about 2,500 made it out on those planes. Some of those left behind did not survive.
Vangyi is among those who made it onto a plane and did survive.
Vangyi says again and again how lucky he is to make it out safe when many others did not and to be where he is
"We are so lucky that the United States allow[ed] the Southeast Asia[n] refugees to come to the United States," says Vangyi.
He says when he arrived in the United States it felt like arriving in "heaven." He says he was so happy to finally be in a secure place. He hadn't experienced that in his life before.
Vangyi says the story of his people is similar to the refugee crisis today. Like those risking their lives in small boats in Europe, the Hmong people risked their lives trying to cross the Mekong river into Thailand.
"I think if we can see this issue clearly," he says, "I think we should allow a little bit of a window to help these people out because everybody is a human being, and it doesn’t matter that it’s Christians or that it’s Islam or whatever."
From experience, Vangyi knows that for a lot of refugees, leaving your country it is about survival. That’s, perhaps, why the day he evacuated from Laos sticks with him so vividly.
You can hear his story of escape by listening to the audio above.
Thongsai Vangyi is giving a luncheon talk tomorrow at North Central Michigan College.