With $40 in hand, just the clothes on their backs and one bag of belongings between them, Niphaphone Sanavongsay’s family arrived in America in 1979 as Laotian refugees fleeing the Southeast Asian nation in the grips of a civil war.
Niphaphone spent the first two years of her life in a refugee camp in Thailand before journeying with her parents and two older brothers to Kingsport, Tennessee. The family later settled in Elgin — home to a large Laotian refugee population.
In her newly released book,/bit.ly/fortydollarsandadream">“Forty Dollars and a Dream: Breaking Through The Bamboo Ceiling,”Niphaphone “Laura” Robertson chronicles her journey uncovering her family’s story of escaping from war-torn Laos. She also writes about trying to fit in as an Asian kid at school, her immigrant identity crisis, and the racism she endured along the way.
“Growing up, I never really knew where we came from,” said Robertson, 44, now living in Algonquin. “All I really knew was that we came here for a better life.”
Robertson knew her family was poor, but her parents never spoke of their experiences in Laos or at the refugee camp. She discovered more about her family’s history when helping her herfamily’s history when helping her husband write a report for a college class project in 2011.
“I ended up begging my dad to explain to me ... recorded him in a two-hour interview,” Robertson said. “He cried and shared the story of (what happened) after the communists invaded our country at the end of the Vietnam War.”
Robertson’s father, Seme (who now goes by Sam), was a prisoner of war for two years. He was captured in 1974 by a communist political group that came to power after the Laotian civil war. Seme escaped from the “re-education camp” in 1976 with two of his imprisoned friends. They walked for about five days through a jungle and crossed over the Mekong River in a boat to Thailand. He eventually was reunited with his wife, Thitta or Tina, who was staying with family members in Thailand.
Once Robertson was born, the family moved into a refugee camp.
“I named my book ‘Forty Dollars and a Dream’ because we were given $40 by a refugee committee to start our life here,” Robertson said.
Robertson’s research led her to the First Presbyterian Church in Kingsport, Tennessee, that had sponsored her family. A church member later mailed Robertson a package “filled with so much history, detailing and documenting everything about us,” she said.
“I sat there bawling my eyes out,” Robertson said.
Among the items was a news story in the Kingsport Times-News with a headline reading, “Laotian Family Hopes For New Start In United States.”
The family stayed eight months in Tennessee before moving to Elgin, where they had relatives, and settled in town with the help of the YMCA.
Robertson’s father took a job welding and her mother worked in a factory. She died in 2018 in her sleep at their Elgin home.
Robertson said she led a “sheltered life” in Elgin’s close-knit Laotian community.
She learned English with a bilingual schoolteacher in Elgin Area School District U-46. In elementary school, she recalled being teased, bullied and “taunted for being Asian.” A fifth-grade teacher once yelled a racial slur at her saying, “you don’t deserve this country!”
“I could still play (the memory) in my head. It petrified me at that time,” Robertson said.
In the book, Robertson talks about trying to assimilate more so she wouldn’t stand out and get picked on. But giving up her Asian identity was a double-edged sword.
“When I was younger I was too Asian for the Americans, and I started being too American for the Asian community,” she said.
In high school, Robertson began seeing a Black boy, which brought her grief at home for dating outside of the community. She ran away from home at 15 to live with a Black family for a year and a half.
“It really calls out the racism in every ethnicity,” Robertson said of the book.
She also talks about the challenges of being in a biracial marriage.
Robertson has been married twice, both times to Black men. She has four biracial children — two girls from the first marriage and two boys from her second — and a grandchild.
To ensure her children and other children of color don’t have to endure bullying, Robertson joined the diversity committee at Algonquin-based Community Unit District 300, where her youngest children now attend school.
Robertson said she wrote her book partly to give the Lao community a voice.
“We are just taught to be quiet, not to cause conflict, not to let our voices be heard,” she said. “I just hope that my book allows them to share their stories and to have the strength to speak up when they are being treated unfairly.”
A 1995 graduate of Elgin High School, Robertson is a business coach, trainer, and motivational speaker who says she strives to help her clients live a life of meaning and purpose. She also offers free career coaching, online training and makeovers for people in need through her Elgin business, Beautiful Potential Consulting.
“I’m doing something to give back to the Elgin community,” she said.