Photos from the Vault

When SLO welcomed refugees yearning to be free

Somchith Soukesone hugs daughter Nipha, while father Kui, missing for five years in Indochina, hugs daughter Sakhone at the San Luis Obispo County Airport.
Somchith Soukesone hugs daughter Nipha, while father Kui, missing for five years in Indochina, hugs daughter Sakhone at the San Luis Obispo County Airport. Tribune file

Apparently, it is a tradition for wealthy New Yorkers to share their opinion about immigrants.

Moses Lazarus was a wealthy sugar refiner who co-founded the elite Knickerbocker Club along with the Vanderbilts and Astors. The Lazarus family was among the first Jewish settlers in America.

Daughter Emma was encouraged to pursue a literary life, and her father, Moses, published her first book of poems when she was 17. Her work was strong enough to engage Ralph Waldo Emerson as a mentor who offered both praise and criticism of her work.

When France provided the gift of the Statue of Liberty, it was up to Americans to provide a suitable place for her to stand.

Fundraising was lagging when Emma wrote the sonnet titled “The New Colossus” in 1883 for an art auction supporting the Bartholdi Pedestal Fund to pay for construction of the statue’s pedestal.

Emma’s classical education played a role in the imagery, as did her experiences working with immigrant refugees on Wards Island. The poem also contains a metaphorical poke in the eye for the rituals of ancient lands.

Emma Lazarus gave notice that America was no longer a junior nation and would be a beacon to the world.

Emma Lazarus calls Liberty “Mother of Exiles,” and the last six of 14 lines give voice to this mother calling to immigrants aboard ships, getting their first glimpse of New York.

"Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she

With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Emma Lazarus died five years later, likely of Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The sonnet is now displayed on a plaque inside the Statue of Liberty pedestal.

Judith Walthers von Alten wrote this refugee story for the Telegram-Tribune July 31, 1980:

Laotian refugee ends 5-year odyssey

Laotian Kui Soukesone came back from the dead Wednesday.

Soukesone’s five-year odyssey through Laos and Thailand ended shortly after 1 p.m. Wednesday when a Swift Aire flight from San Francisco touched down in San Luis Obispo.

Waiting for him was wife Somchith, who had given him up for dead and come to the United States with three children, Niphone, 12, Kamphone, 11 and Sakhone, 9. Kui also was accompanied by a third daughter, Nipha, 15.

The family’s story is a tangled one, as explained by interpreter Karl Kunz and Constance Mooney, who headed the refugee committee of the Mount Carmel Lutheran Church in San Luis Obispo that brought the family together.

Soukesone had an agreement with his wife and children that any one of them who was able to leave Laos, should do so and not wait for the others.

Soukesone was a chauffeur in the Royal Laotian Army for a high ranking official when Vietnamese Communists invaded Laos about five years ago. He was captured and taken to a re-education camp.

It was very common for people to “disappear” from such camps, Kunz said. Soukesone’s wife “had gotten to the point where she had given up hope,” he said. “It was very doubtful whether he was alive or not.”

Meanwhile, Mrs. Soukesone took her four children and escaped into Thailand by crossing a river at night in a safe place where they couldn’t be seen. They spent a year in a Thai refugee camp while they tried to get to the United States.

Nipha became engaged and left the camp to be with her future husband, who was to take her to Canada.

Paperwork for Mrs. Soukesone and the remaining three children came through after the Mount Carmel congregation heard of the family and decided to sponsor them.

After Somchith and the children arrived in San Luis Obispo, sponsors at first thought the family had no father. They learned that the fourth daughter, Nipha, had broken her engagement and her fiancee had left without her for Canada.

Meanwhile, Soukesone was alive in Laos.

He was released from the re-education camp and at Christmas time, he escaped to Thailand by floating across a river at a spot where people often were shot.

In Thailand, Soukesone found his daughter Nipha at the refugee camp, and the two began trying to rejoin the rest of their family in the United States.

But paper work that was supposed to take only weeks took half a year. Soukesone’s papers were misfiled, then destroyed in a fire.

While he grew impatient, his family in San Luis Obispo was busy getting established. Mrs. Soukesone found work in the city as a seamstress, her trade in Laos. Niphone started delivering papers for the Telegram-Tribune, and he and his two sisters went to school.

Wednesday, as the four waited for Soukesone and Nipha, they fidgeted quietly, laughed nervously and again, waited. After the plane landed, silently they watched Soukesone walk up the ramp, stop and stare at his family bashfully.

And then, in a burst of tears and long hugs, they were six again.

David Middlecamp is a photographer for The Tribune. 805-781-7942,, @DavidMiddlecamp