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Phet Keomanyvanh's Journey from Refugee Camp to City Hall


Phet Keomanyvanh - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Phet Keomanyvanh

When Phet Keomanyvanh (pa-et geld-ma-ni-vun) was about 6 years old, she had a frightening experience at school in St. Johnsbury that would shape her later life. Newly arrived from a refugee camp, Keomanyvanh was afraid to use the bathroom at school. During recess, she went to relieve herself "around the corner," recounted Keomanyvanh. A teacher found out and put her in a toilet stall, where Keomanyvanh couldn't figure out how to unlock the door and started crying. A janitor eventually got her out.

"Those types of situations, they have a permanent effect on your psyche," said Keomanyvanh, now 42. "You're already feeling different and alienated enough, and then you have a traumatic experience such as that."

Today, Keomanyvanh works for the City of Burlington as the community development specialist for public engagement at the Community and Economic Development Office. Through her work with programs such as the city's My Brother's Keeper Initiative, she strives to develop relationships with various constituencies and communities in Burlington and to make the city more inclusive, equitable and welcoming.

"It's important not to minimize where people are coming from," said Keomanyvanh, "especially if they're coming from a totally different country and worldview."

After the communist takeover of their native Laos in the mid-1970s, Keomanyvanh and her parents fled by crossing the Mekong River. They spent the next few years in refugee camps in Thailand — where her sister was born — and the Philippines. In January 1981, the family of four was resettled in Vermont with the help of a local church.

Statistics from the Migration Policy Institute, a think tank based in Washington, D.C., set the Laotian population in the U.S. at close to 200,000 in 2015. Vermont was not a permanent destination for these refugees; while other Lao families settled in St. Johnsbury and Springfield, Keomanyvanh said, many eventually moved to bigger cities. Keomanyvanh's father, Khamchaleun, one of the founders of the Green Mountain Lao Association, estimates that 30 Laotian families currently live in Vermont.

When Keomanyvanh arrived in St. Johnsbury, the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program was only nascent, the state's ethnic diversity nearly nil. Keomanyvanh recalls a deeply alienating experience. Residents hurled racial epithets at them, both she and her father remembered. Her classmates made fun of her lunch of dried fish and sticky rice, and she wasn't allowed to attend slumber parties. She had to translate school documents for her parents. "I felt bad," recalled her father. "I [was] shy because I [didn't] know."

She and her sister struggled to adjust to the new culture, Keomanyvanh said: "We started from a different starting point ... We had to do a lot of legwork to catch up, to fit in; how to act, how to present yourself."

Her parents had to adapt, too. "They started adopting more American ways and understanding about American culture," she said. For instance, after their church sponsor warned them that it was against the law for them to leave the youngsters at home, her parents hired a babysitter whenever they traveled to Boston to stock up on Lao food supplies. "I've always taken care of my little sister," said Keomanyvanh. "I thought they were going overboard."

Along with acculturation, Keomanyvanh said, her parents had to cope with post-traumatic stress disorder. Both had witnessed people being killed during the war. "My dad would have nightmares ... We could hear it," she continued. Once, her mother thought a store assistant was trying to hurt her when his broom brushed her feet. In such situations, "You don't know how to help your parents," Keomanyvanh said.

While the newcomers were alienated from Vermont life in many ways, their sponsors gave them a certain social capital, Keomanyvanh recalled. "Growing up, I did have connections, because my sponsors were upper-middle class," she said.

Keomanyvanh's parents took her education seriously, but it was her sponsors who impressed on her the importance of a college education. In those days, Keomanyvanh said, refugees from Southeast Asia had low college-going rates compared with immigrants from Japan, Korea and China, as well as high gang activity. When it came to the stereotype of the Asian American "model minority," "Those realities weren't there," she said.

Keomanyvanh studied for three years at Trinity College and the University of Vermont before moving to North Carolina with her father. By then, her parents had divorced. There she married, had two daughters and completed her degree in anthropology.

In North Carolina, Keomanyvanh found a larger population of Laotian families who helped her develop a greater appreciation for her roots. She instilled the same pride in her two daughters, giving them names that reflected their Laotian heritage: Savun (heaven) and Lani (princess). At the same time, she acknowledges, she deliberately chose names that would be easier for English speakers to pronounce than her own.

"You know what makes me angry?" she asked, recalling her own experiences. "When people don't even try." Even if someone mispronounces her name as "fet," she continued, "at least you tried."

Keomanyvanh moved back to Vermont in 2007, believing her children would get a better education here. She remarried, completed a master's degree in public administration at UVM, and worked in human services at Champlain Community Services and the United Way of Chittenden County. In 2016, she got her current job at city hall.

"I'm proud of my kids," said Keomanyvanh's father, who also now lives in Vermont. His daughter, likewise, said she's proud of him. Although her father didn't have a high-paying job when she was a child, he founded the Lao association, a form of informal civic engagement that Keomanyvanh described as just as important as attending neighborhood planning assemblies.

Her personal experience drives Keomanyvanh, as a public administrator, to ensure that oft-marginalized voices are heard in Burlington. To that end, she works through frameworks such as the My Brother's Keeper Initiative, which began as a national nonprofit founded by president Barack Obama to promote equity for young men and boys of color.

Mayor Miro Weinberger launched the city's version of the initiative in 2016 to address opportunity gaps in employment and education faced by youths of color of all genders.* One of its upcoming efforts is the Pathways to College and Career Fair, to be held Friday, November 3, at Champlain College, which aims to improve first-generation American students' access to higher education.

"A lot of what My Brother's Keeper is about is working together ... and [aligning] our resources," said Keomanyvanh.

During the summer, Keomanyvanh and her AmeriCorps assistant, Beth Awhaitey, launched the three-week Pathway to Lead program at Burlington High School as part of My Brother's Keeper. One participant was Hawa Adam, a member of the slam poetry group Muslim Girls Making Change, who said the program introduced her to internship and job opportunities, connecting her with the community resources she needs as a high school senior and activist. Adam later got an internship with CEDO, during which she worked on its Neighborhood Buzz, a twice-monthly email newsletter for Burlington residents.

With Keomanyvanh's help, the teen also learned about "the little things that make up the big world," she wrote in an email. "There's an understanding of being on time, getting the work done and looking good that comes with it all."

Awhaitey credited Keomanyvanh with making her first experience working in local government a good one, saying that "she explained things clearly" and "really helped me expand my experience in different areas." After completing her AmeriCorps service, Awhaitey took a part-time position with CEDO.

As a mother of two teenagers, Keomanyvanh said the most challenging part of her job is being away from her family. "When you do outreach and engagement, it's not nine to five," she said. But she enjoys the social aspect of the job, saying, "I'm a person that gets energized by people."

Even when she was younger and hated being different, Keomanyvanh said, her Lao identity was the one constant in her life. Now she's toying with the idea of joining the Peace Corps when her children are older. For her, serving abroad could be a form of homecoming. "I would be interested more in going back to Southeast Asia, where I would have an understanding of how to work with the community," she said. "And it's a chance for me to get to know my heritage and tradition, too."

*Correction, October 25, 2017: An earlier version of the story misstated the year that Mayor Miro Weinberger launched the city's version of the My Brother's Keeper Initiative. In addition, we've corrected the phonetic spelling of  Phet Keomanyvanh's name.

Pathways to College and Career Fair, Friday, November 3, 3-6 p.m., at Center for Communication and Creative Media, Champlain College, in Burlington. Free. For registration info, visit CEDO's Facebook page.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Lao and Proud"