In Pursuit of Life and Liberty

Parri Ordoubadian, The Daily News Journal, June 25, 1978

A couple of years ago helping a refugee adjust to this country was the latest rage. The influx of Laotian refugees into this country was one of the biggest topics of conversation.

But, just like any other fad, the word ‘refugee’ became old and boring, and the interest in refugees in many circles died away.

Rutherford County Commissioner Chantho Sourinho

Although the interest of many may have died, the amazing fact is that the refugees in Murfreesboro are working, going to school and enjoying life.

Carol Cristoff, student coordinator of the Laotian Resettlement Agency of Rutherford County, best described the 14 Laotian families presently living in the area by saying, “They are REAL survivors. They are extremely receptive and motivated. I’m amazed at how quickly they’ve adapted here.”

Ms. Crisstoff’s agency is one of the various individuals, organizations and churches that have not forgotten the refugees. She said the purpose of the group which was organized in January (ed. 1978) is ‘outreach’, to help Laotians meet their needs. “They just need some guidance to get through the channels of our complicated culture,” she said.

Chantho Sourinho, a Laotian graduate student at MTSU, is one individual who has been continually doing the same thing for his countrymen since the 1975 communist take-over of Laos.

“I was here in school when I found out the communists took my country,: Sourinho said. “I felt I really needed to help these people living in great fear of the new government.”

Sourinho began immediately to make contacts with officials handling refugee settlement. The refugees who fled crossed the river to Thailand where they were placed in camps until they could be resettled in a new country permanently.

He also contacted people in Murfreesboro to serve as sponsors for the refugees wanting to come to the United States.

Vera Howard, who Sourinho called “really wonderful”, agreed to sponsor refugee families two years ago. Her duties as sponsor included helping them find housing, household furnishings and jobs.

“They came from a crowded, terrible life in Thailand refugee camps,” Mrs. Howard said. “Even though they had absolutely nothing, there were very desperate to come to this, their third country.”

In 1976, the first Laotian refugee families came to Murfreesboro with nothing “but our ten fingers and our minds,” Sourinho said.

Even though they first lived in public housing, some have already bought their own homes, Mrs. Howard said. Everyone is learning English, the children go to school and they all have jobs, she continued.

One organization, the Murfreesboro Literacy Association, has taken it upon itself to teach the Laotian adults English. Jane Poole, chairman of the association, said volunteer teachers meet with the Laotians once a week either at First Baptist Church or in their homes.

Mrs. Poole said, “It’s just been great. The Laotians have a wonderful attitude. They really want to learn and are reading.”

The children have been attending the county school for the past two years at McFadden Elementary School, Central Middle School and Riverdale High School.

“The majority of the kids are pretty sharp” said Claire Sivells, director of pupil personnel for the county schools. “Their classroom skills are good but there is a language barrier.”

The county has met the language problem at McFadden with half hour a day classes with the school’s speech instructor. As for the teenagers, Mrs, Dick Lalance, a county employed speech and language pathologist, taught them English as a second language for an hour and a half, four days a week during the school year.

“I think they did beautifully,” Mrs. Lalance said. “It’s a good beginning and I think it needs to be continued.”

Sourinho, himself a father of four (two still in Thai refugee camps), said the Laotians are “very happy with the schools.”

“Our children have learned a great deal. The schools have done an excellent job,” Sourinho said. “But I think we have so many Laotian children here now that we will try to get them (the County) to hire a Laotian teacher. Several of the ladies were teachers in Laos.”

Sourinho always jumps at a chance to assist one of countrymen secure employment. He said the business for the most part has been responsive to the Laotian employment needs.

Park Sherman Company and Samsonite, both of Murfreesboro, employ many of the Laotian working population. clements Paper of Nashville, also employs a number of Laotians from Murfreesboro.

Richard H. Philpot, president of Clements Paper, said he has found the Laotians the “hardest working, most conscientious people I’ve ever known.”

Philpot said his company had to lay off some of the Laotians in a recent cut-back within the company. “It broke our hearts to do it. Of course we had to go by seniority, and in this case, we had to lay off some of our most talented people.”

Philpot said he heard about the refugees and their ‘super work by word of mouth. I tell you now, if anyone wants to hire them, I’d give them a very high endorsement.”

Not only are the employers, teachers and volunteers giving high endorsements to the Laotians, the Laotians are giving high endorsements to the Murfreesboro community.

Bounheuang Kanjanabout, his wife Chanh and their six children said they were satisfied with their life in Murfreesboro. he said hi friends from aournd the country including Atlanta and San Francisco have tried to get get them to move from Murfreesboro. “But we are very happy here. The town and people have been very good to us. No, we won’t move,”
Kanjanabout said.

Sourinho said, “I really feel like Murfreesboro is my hometown. I always tell my friends and family in Thailand refugee camps that I want them to come here. We’ve been happy to make our home here.”

74 Laotians presently make their home in Rutherford County and four more families are expected to arrive from the Thai refugee camps this summer.

Two families have already arrived. They are staying with friends and relatives until they find jobs and housing.

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