Silaphone Nhongvongsouthy

Silaphone Nhongvongsouthy was born in Savannakhet, Laos and came to United States when she was 3 years old. “It was the end of the war in Laos when the communist régime took over and a lot of people were living in poverty.” Silaphone left with her older brother and parents because her parents wanted a better life for their family. Her uncle, sponsored by a church in the late 1970s, was living in Providence and petitioned for them to join him in Rhode Island.

Her journey to Rhode Island was long and with some struggles. She vaguely remembers crossing the Mekong River and staying in a refugee camp in Thailand for a few months until the paperwork was ready. Her parents told her stories that they had to carry her on their back while traveling during the night to hide from soldiers to get to the refugee camp.
Upon arriving in Rhode Island, the family fell in love with Providence and they have lived here since.

“It was difficult growing up because my parents knew very little English when they came. They both worked 7 days a week with many times holding two jobs to support our family. I love them very much and appreciate all of the sacrifices they have made.”

They settled in the Smith Hill area of Providence where the majority of Lao refugees settled when they came. Most of her childhood memories are with other Laotians because that is with whom her parents felt most comfortable. Silaphone admits her parents are still adjusting to American life and customs. “Everywhere they went they had to immerse themselves – going to stores or watching television, for example.”

Silaphone attended Classical High School and then the University of Rhode Island. Originally she was a nursing major because her parents encouraged her. “All immigrant parents want their kids to go into the health field and become doctors or nurses.” However, she realized it wasn’t for her and changed her major to Business Administration.

2007 was a big year for Silaphone. She and her mother traveled back to Laos to visit the village and house where they used to live. “When I got back from that trip I wanted to preserve my culture so I got involved with the Laotian Community Center. I wanted to help other Lao Americans carry on with their culture and to know where they came from.”

Silaphone is currently the Executive Director of the Laotian Community Center where she works with Lao youth. A former dancer herself, she coordinates their traditional dance group to perform at different venues and cultural events.

Recently, she was chosen by the Lao Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. to learn to be an teacher of traditional Laotian instruments and will bring the program to Rhode Island from Washington, D.C. Silaphone also took 10 students from Rhode Island in August 2012 to a cultural camp in Washington D.C. so they could learn traditional music, dancing and singing. “Helping Lao American children to learn traditional customs and to know their heritage, is important to me.”

Further, she is part of a leadership program called S.E.A.R.C.H. (Southeast Asians Restoring Community Hope) based at a non-profit organization called SEDC-SEA. They are planning a national conference in December 2012 and bringing national Southeast Asian Leaders to Rhode Island. Silaphone is also collaborating with SEDC-SEA to start a media project where Southeast Asian youth learn the process of creating a public radio show.

“The Southeast Asian community doesn’t have any media outlets at the moment. We have groups and associations, along with the temples, which act as meeting places and outlets for communication to the community.”

Silaphone has dedicated her time to preserve Lao culture and to learn about other cultures. Her goal is to create awareness about Southeast Asians to the public and have Americans understand their culture.

She believes technology can help youth learn about their heritage in a way previous immigrants and refugees could not. Her advice to Southeast Asian youth; “Be proud of your heritage and don’t be afraid to learn about it and practice your culture. Know where you are and where you come from.”

Silaphone, resides in Providence.