As a young college student, Vidalay “Air” Vongkhamchanh said goodbye to his Laotian family and ventured out into the unknown. He didn’t know where he would end up. It took extreme courage and resilience, but he persisted.
“I had to fight hard in my life,” Air says.
Air was one of six children. His mother passed away when he was only eight. When his father remarried, everything changed. “Our lives were not the same afterward,” Air recalls.
From then on, Air was raised by his grandparents. He went to school and worked on the family farm, until everything changed again.
Laos collapsed in 1973 at the end of the Vietnam War. “We wanted the country to be united, no matter what – left or right,” Air says. “We thought we would join together.” But the communist regime took over Laos. “Our life changed,” Air recalls.
At that time, Air was a college student studying engineering. Staying in Laos meant he might get shot. “We were thinking about the future,” he says. “If we stay in Laos, we have no future. It was unstable there.” Air felt he had no choice but to swim across the Mekong River to Thailand.
It took Air two hours to swim the river and what he found on the other side wasn’t much easier than what he’d left behind. The camp had 30,000 refugees and living conditions were difficult.
After the camp caught on fire, Air slept in tents and on the ground. During the rainy season, the mud made even walking difficult. “It was very hard every day,” he says. The United Nations provided food, but no clothing or money for the refugees. “You had to help yourself.”
It was a painful time for Air. “It’s a very sad thing,” he says. “You had your own land and family, but you have to make a decision. Get out where it is better and there is a brighter future? Or stay there without any opportunity because the whole country changed systems? It’s very sad when you leave your family behind, for both my wife and I. We were homesick and we didn’t see any future at that time. We were just like a dream in the night with a dark sky.”
Air stayed in Thailand until 1979. As a refugee, he applied to many countries to see who would accept him, including Germany, France, Austria, Canada and the United States. No matter which country picked him, he had to go.
Eventually, he was interviewed by the United Nations and UNICEF accepted his application. His wife, brother and brother-in-law were also interviewed to come to the United States. First, they went to the Philippines for several months to learn English.
In 1981, he finally arrived in the United States.
He started his American life in Seattle, but eventually made his way south in search of a more rural setting. Lewis County was a great fit. “I was thinking about the future of my family because my sons were so young,” Air says. “Here my kids felt safe when they went to school. It was good for them.”
When Air came to Lewis County, he worked at a couple different jobs. Then, in 1996, Air began working as the Embroidery Machines Operator at Aldersons Awards West Printwares. He had experience from working at a similar company in Seattle as a supervisor.
He enjoys his work at Aldersons Awards West Printwares. “It’s friendly and family-like,” he says. “It’s nice. That’s why I’m still here.”
Air strives for excellence and customer satisfaction in his work. “I enjoy doing what I’m doing right now,” he says. “People like it and they are happy. I’m proud. Everything we do is to make sure the customer is happy. Without the customer, we cannot do what we do.”
Air also owns Twin City Fiberglass Repair in Ethel, where he does bodywork and painting for semi tractors. After he’s done at Aldersons Wards West Printwares full-time, he goes to his shop to work more. “I cannot stay home,” he says. “I keep myself busy. That is the way I am. I came from a farmer family.” Over 10-hour workdays are not uncommon for Air.
“He has the best work ethic I have ever observed,” says Tom Alderson, owner of Aldersons Awards West Printwares. “We’re blessed to have him. He is really talented and certainly made our embroidery department better. Previously he was a supervisor of a much larger operation, so he brings that perspective to us. He has an understanding of workflow and equipment and utilizing it better.”
Air has made incredible sacrifices to improve his family’s lives. His bravery in the face of so many unknowns is noteworthy. “When I was a teenager, I had to work to pay for my education because of my dream to be an engineer,” Air says. “It’s really hard when I came over here at a young age. My certificate was not good here so I would have had to go back to school. To go back to school then, how would we pay the rent? I didn’t know, so I made the decision to look for work to survive. It’s okay though; my kids are better because of that and are educated. That was my goal.”
Air’s hard work and perseverance is paying off in the lives of his children. He and his family are an asset to Lewis County. Their story reminds us all how lucky we are to live here and that – with bravery and dedication – anything is possible.