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updated: 11/10/2013 10:32 AM

Lao refugee stories to be featured in Elgin

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  • Aloune Khotisene, Southeast Asian youth program director for the Elgin YWCA, has been working on a Lao Oral History Project in which he interviews Laotian refugees about their stories. The project will be screened Sunday at Gail Borden Public Library in Elgin.

       Aloune Khotisene, Southeast Asian youth program director for the Elgin YWCA, has been working on a Lao Oral History Project in which he interviews Laotian refugees about their stories. The project will be screened Sunday at Gail Borden Public Library in Elgin.
    Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

 
 

Aloune Khotisene has one huge regret -- never asking his father about what exactly led to the family's fleeing Laos in the middle of the night in 1979.

They settled in Elgin after 2 years in France, and over time it just didn't seem important to delve into the past, said Khotisene, whose mother died when he was young and father six years ago.

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"I wasn't really focused on why was I here. I was just happy that I was here. To have a job, and have a family, and have a house," said Khotisene, 40, of Pingree Grove.

"But if my daughter or my son ever asked me, 'What about grandpa?' I wouldn't have an answer for that."

That realization was the impetus for Khotisene to start working on a Lao Oral History Project in which he interviews Laotian refugees who came to northern Illinois in the 1970s and 1980s.

The project will be screened Sunday at Gail Borden Public Library in Elgin.

So far, he has interviewed about eight adults, mostly from Elgin but also Aurora, Rockford and Moline.

"It's a lot of heart-wrenching stories. Stuff you want to know but at the same time you don't want to happen to them," said Khotisene, who works as Southeast Asian youth program director for the Elgin YWCA.

"You understand the reason why it's such as sensitive issue because it brings back bad memories, and it's heartbreaking to hear about the obstacles and struggles they had to overcome."

The project is part of the Gail Borden Public Library's Big Read, a program of the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with Arts Midwest that encourages education and literacy through community partnerships.

It features fascinating interviews with Laotians who fought during in covert operations alongside U.S. troops in Laos during the Vietnam War, said Miriam Lytle, the library's division chief of community services and program development.

"It's about them finally being able, and being ready, to tell their story," she said. "They're very compelling stories."

Khotisene -- who credits the project to the collaboration of several people, including NIU professor John Hartmann -- also interviewed young Laotians about their perspectives.

"A lot of the elders are passing away, so their kids and grandkids don't know about (the history of Laos)," he said.

"This is an educational tool for them and also something they have from their parents to remember."

The screening event is 2 to 4:30 p.m. Sunday at Gail Borden Public Library, 270 N. Grove Ave.

Also participating will be Joanna C. Scott, author of "Indochina's Refugees: Oral Histories from Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam" and Thavisouk Phrasavath, author of "Stepped Out of the Womb: A Memoir of the Journey to the Land Where the Sun Falls" and of the Oscar-nominated film "The Betrayal: Nerakhoon."

Laotian food will be served from White Pearl Restaurant in Elgin.

Laotian residents interested in being interviewed for the project can contact Khotisene at (847) 742-7930 or akhotisene@ywcaelgin.org.

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