The Naked And Famous’ Alisa Xayalith On Growing Up As A Refugee

A powerful and prescient piece from the New Zealand artist...

Hello, my name is Alisa Xayalith. I am not an academic, a scholar or a politician. I am an artist. I sing and write songs in a rock band from New Zealand called The Naked And Famous. I am also a daughter of refugee parents who risked their lives seeking safety from war. I will be forever grateful for the quality of life I have been granted because of the lengths they were willing to go to protect their family. I would like to share my family story with you.

Before I was born, my father, mother, older brother and sister lived in Laos. Laos is the only landlocked country in the whole of South-East Asia and it has a population of 6.5 million people. A communist party called the Pathet Lao seized power in 1975, the year the Vietnam War ended. Once they were in power, they began their genocide of the people who fought with the Americans in what was referred to as the "secret war".

My father was from the Tai Pao tribe – a branch of the Lao Loum – and studying to be a doctor. He spoke three languages and had a degree in microbiology. The CIA enlisted him to work as a translator during the war. My father recently told me that once the Pathet Laos took over the country everyone who had worked for the Americans would be taken to a training seminar camp. Instantly he knew this meant he had no choice but to leave, it was no longer safe for him to remain in Laos. He would have been taken prisoner or killed for working with US intelligence.

He made his journey out of Laos ahead of his family, leaving my mother and their children with some money and the hope they could make it out of the war and be reunited across the border in Thailand.

In 1976 my father swam across the Mekong River at night and made it to the Laos Refugee camp in Nong Khai where he was offered work for a UN medical unit in a Cambodian camp located in the South West of Thailand.

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I recently asked my sister to recall our mother’s journey… Our mother was 20 years old with a one-year old son and three-year old daughter. She joined with a small group of people starting the journey out of the Tai Pao village shortly after my father had made his trek. It took a few weeks of walking through very mountainous terrain in the Laos jungle and it was a very slow journey for families having to carry young babies and children along the way. They travelled at night and slept during the day to avoid being caught by Pathet Lao soldiers.

My mother and another woman stuck close to one another, helping each other out with their children along the way. Once they had reached the Mekong River, my mother used the money she had to acquire a very small boat. The women put all the children in the boat but one child belonging to the other woman could not fit in the small boat, so they made a plan to go back for the child once they got to the other side. The two women swam and pushed the boat across the river and once they had reached Thailand on the other side, my mother’s friend was too scared to make the journey back for the last waiting child.

So the story goes that my resilient and courageous mother decided to go back for the child on her own, swimming across that river a total of three times in one night. I cannot imagine the exhaustion after such a harrowing trek. The Mekong River is known for its very strong currents and fatalities of other people trying to cross the border during this time.

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My family was reunited in a refugee camp in Thailand. They made it out of the camp in 1979 and were settled in New Zealand, where I was born and where my mother died before I was eight years old. My father now lives and works in Australia. And I now pay my taxes in the United States of America.

My family story runs parallels to many refugees all over the world who are seeking safe passage, fleeing war, persecution and terror in their own homeland. Reading the news of the suspension of the resettlement of Syrian refugees in America, watching horrific videos online of children getting caught in the crossfire in Aleppo and the ban of Muslims based on their religion, all these things denying the basic human right to safety for families, drives my passion to make a stand for refugees and be a positive voice where there is racial hatred, prejudice against religion and the de-humanizing of refugees in any public forum. To villainize refugees is dangerous and it only invites a ripple effect of negativity towards people who don’t deserve it. These people have no choice but to fight for their lives against all odds just as my parents did.

According to the yearly report published by the UNHCR, there are over 65 million refugees and displaced people in the world, with women and children making up the majority. The word “refugee” is not one that should elicit fear. You may be surprised at the list of artists who are refugees and immigrants. Can you imagine a world where their talents weren’t written, painted or published? Like your favourite song, poem or novel?

I am going to approach this global crisis with benevolence, kindness, empathy and compassion. I hope you can do the same.

How can you help?

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The Naked And Famous play London's Kentish Town Forum on February 14th – new album 'Simple Forms' is out now.

This article has been corrected on February 17th to show that Alisa’s father was a member of the Tai Po tribe in Loas and not Hmong.

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