Sitting around a dinner table, talking about life, and luck

I know this column is supposed to focus on people and places in the Barrie area, and mostly I try to stay with the topic. But the Vannaraths and the Sonethasacks came into my mind this week and I think I want to tell their story.

It was 1980. Our first child was two. We were sitting at a friend’s cottage having dinner one night, a whole group of us, all in the ankle-biter phase of our lives where no valuable item was placed lower than four feet. Our conversation turned to our good fortune with this magnificent country. We also dwelled on being able to work hard to carry out a vision. I looked around the table and each person there was actually focussed on fulfilling a dream.

And then the conversation moved to the news pages of the day. Those of you who were adults in 1980 will remember day after day, story after story of refugees from Laos and Viet Nam, huddled in refugee camps in Thailand, dying in castaway boats in dangerous seas, murdered by some political cause that didn’t make sense to anybody.

And then there was a magic moment. That tinkle. That dividing line between a conversation and a course of action.

We became an incorporated organization called “Friends.” We met twice monthly to begin the application process to rescue a family from their human hell. We each scoured what were then pretty meagre earnings to find a monthly commitment not only to prove the minimum bank balance necessary for refugee sponsorship, but also a monthly donation for ongoing support for the first several years the “family” arrived in Canada. We stuffed one person’s basement with a growing inventory of furniture, bedding, towels, staples, household furnishings and supplies. We went on the look-out for an apartment. And we waited.

Through our meetings we learned how to welcome people who were essentially going to be “in shock” from their experiences. We made preliminary contact with the University of Toronto’s dental school to arrange for dental care. We lined up medical care. We squeezed every friend we could for donations, often having to explain that the “boat people” had a legitimate case, often listening to tirades about the fact that our dollars should be sent there, and the people shouldn’t be brought here.

All this brought us into contact with Bounthong Vannarath. Bounthong is an engineer, Laotian by birth, a graduate of the University of Manchester, England. His Vietnamese tongue had a British flavour to it, and meetings with Bounthong acquainted our ears with new communications skills. Bounthong and his young wife, Keevansang had been “sponsored” by a group to move to Canada. Their little two year old, black-eyed, black haired “Bobby” became a quick friend to our fair-haired, blue-eyed youngsters. Bounthong (pronounced Boon-Tong) and Keevansang (pronounced Key-Van-Sang) had been refugees in a camp in Thailand. They had moved to Canada, quickly found work in production at Maple Lodge Farms and Bounthong increasingly found himself shuffled into a leadership position with the growing Laotian community as family members tried to find each other after their horrible experiences.

Bounthong was 28.

He and Keevansang were anxious that Friends sponsor her two cousins, teenage brothers who were alone in a camp in Thailand. We had set our sights on a “family” and it took some discussion before we agreed to apply for these two young men. The emotion as two of our Friends welcomed the boys at Pearson International was incredible. We resisted the temptation to welcome them “en masse” because their arrival was the culmination of two years of steady work since that casual dinner in 1982. We were excited!

One by one, we called on the boys at their apartment. We opened the book we had prepared and turned to “our page” the one with our pictures, our names, our phone numbers etc. We’d prepared a page on each member of Friends, so the boys would know we were “safe” callers at their door.

Our cultural differences were stark. They had enormous learning curves. So did we.

Ondone (pronounced Ooo-don) and Sounthong (pronounced Soon-Tong) were 15 and 16. They had been alone in a camp for two years. Their parents and remaining seven siblings were still in war-torn Laos, alive? dead?

Anyway, it’s far too long a story to take you through their growth as Laotian-Canadians and as the years passed, most of the group of Friends went on with their lives. But, our relationship with both boys and with Keevansang and Bounthong continued to flourish. One Christmas when we’d stopped by in North York with gifts for “Bobby” and baby “William”, Bounthong insisted that we follow him in his car; there were people we needed to meet. We followed Bounthong’s car from their townhouse in North York for miles and miles… all the way to Brampton. We went up an elevator in a tall apartment building. There was a stillness as he knocked at a door which opened to us. We went in, removing shoes, waiting, wordless.

There was a man, and a woman, about our age. There was a baby. There were two teenagers with crazy dress and crazy hair colour (absorbing their new culture, no doubt). There were four other little ones, toddlers, gangly 8 and 9 year olds. It was silent. The man approached us. He held out his hand with a carved animal in it. He was gathering courage and he reached over to my husband’s outstretched hand and placed the carving in it.

“Thank you for my children,” he said. Slowly. Softly.

Ondone and Sounthong’s family had been brought to Canada.

The irony of this presentation was not lost on me. Thirty years earlier, my own husband’s family had travelled a similar journey from a different part of the world.

It was chaos at first–English classes, health needs, cultural differences, school shock. But we attended the weddings of each of those boys, celebrating their new lives.

And today? Today Bounthong and Keevansang call regularly; we share our pride and our angst with our children’s lives. We celebrate the excitement of what the Sonethasacks are all up to. And we mourn the political reality that forced them to make a new home, with new traditions.

And every single year, among our Christmas greetings comes the largest card. It’s obviously specially purchased because it’s large, it’s colourful, it’s decorative, and it’s one of a kind. And it thanks us. It’s from Brampton.

Now and then I revisit the dinner, the tinkle of conversation, the blindness of privilege, and the split second timing that took a conversation and mobilized a group of ordinary people into creating opportunity for someone else.