By Toni Smothers
Back in the 1980’s, Bounpheng Panmuang (we call him Boone) lived in constant fear. Although Laos was his homeland, he felt alienated from a country that accepted war as an inevitable occurrence. As he approached his sixteenth birthday, the age which would demand his part in the endless chain of destruction surrounding him, he would soon be forced to fight in a senseless war; only Boone didn’t want to kill anyone. If he refused, however, he could be killed or jailed for the rest of his life.
Boone knew that to try to make the walk from the hills of Laos to Thailand would be certain death. Urged by his family to escape, he summoned his courage and planned to slip into the Mekong River and swim to safety. Leaving the people he loved most in the world, he was sustained by the desperate need they all shared for his freedom.
Several Laotian people set out that night to risk everything on a new life. Boone was the lucky one; the feared guerrilla gunfire did come, spraying bullets through the water as they swam. Finally out of the rifle’s range, Boone found himself miraculously alive, drifting toward sanctuary in Thailand. The tragic fact that he was alone in his victory weighed heavy on Boone’s heart. His other countrymen had disappeared, floating lifelessly down the blood stained Mekong River.
After his escape, Boone met a young Laotian named Sythien in a Thailand refugee camp. Sythien told officials that Boone was his brother so that Boone was included when Sythien’s family was accepted for resettlement in America under the auspices of our church through Immigration & Refugee Services. The refugee committee at my church became the family’s local sponsor at this time, greeting them at the Orlando Airport and taking responsibility for obtaining employment and housing for them.
Boone, along with three of the other Laotian children, stayed in my home while waiting for more permanent housing. Sythien, his wife and baby stayed with another committee member. There were some difficulties originally: head lice; skin ulcers, malnourished appetites; the language barrier; hesitant, formal feelings – all contributed to less than spontaneous relationships. My family and I prayed for God’s help and we fully expected Him to show us what to do and help us know how to cope with each issue as it presented itself. It’s amazing how resourceful people of God can be in a pinch. We communicated by using body language and pantomime and with the love of the Lord, which filled in all the other gaps, we understood enough. It was a cultural experience for us all. Continual reliance on the power of God, the bond of compassion and friendship He blessed us with, inevitably carried us through.
After 10 days, we located an adequate three-bedroom rental house and furnished it with donations from the church. Our Laotian friends were obviously proud of their new home and considered it very luxurious. Boone spent much of his time at my house, however, playing with my children, eating meals with us, cutting our grass or doing any chore he saw that he could do. It was soon apparent that Boone responded to my family and our home in a very unique way. We spent hours teaching him things and even enrolled him in a night school English class at the local high school. It was about this time that the facts about Boone’s true identity surfaced. When the Immigration & Refugee Services heard about it, they relocated Boone in a down town flophouse that was already overcrowded with many unmotivated refugees, collecting welfare and contributing little to their own improvement.
Things went downhill from there – Boone did manage to find himself a boring minimum wage job, but he lived too far away to continue attending school and his English slipped noticeably. At 17, Boone needed a better chance to make it in this country. My family felt God’s leading and so we interceded at this point. Boone moved in with us.
His situation didn’t improve immediately. Boone’s job was seasonal, so he was laid off. Receiving welfare was not an option for Boone. He said it would make him terribly ashamed. He tried constantly to find work, peddling his bicycle from place to place, approaching prospective employers with his faulty English. Eventually, we managed to find him a permanent position with the Marriott Hotel. No longer a jobless pauper, Boone had a really fine job with a good income, insurance and a paid annual vacation. His dream of having his own car became a definite possibility. Back in evening English classes, he studied endlessly to pass the written driver’s test.
Boone, unaccustomed to cold weather, would freeze waiting for buses in order to get to work by 8:00 a.m. when the temperature was in the 30’s or 40’s some mornings. He had to transfer to a second bus. He got lost many times, but he stuck it out and never missed a single day of work. He’d always smile, never showing the slightest irritation, always conscientious and amiable. He was such a precious child of God.
Boone taught us all a great deal about perseverance and the human need for freedom and growth. We helped him as much as seemed reasonable, but his life was an inevitable chain of mishaps and frustrating experiences. There were people who took unscrupulous advantage of his generous nature, repeatedly begging rent or food money from him; money they never intended to repay, having no jobs or prospects. But Boone felt that he had been given so much that he could hardly do less for others, so he continued to give without reservation. His only transportation, his bicycle, was stolen. Boone learned many lessons the hard way, yet he always remained the same optimistic young man we all loved.
Each time Boone took the written driver’s test, he’d show me his failure slip from the traffic bureau. He’d just smile, fold the paper up and tuck it into his pocket to save with all the others. “That’s OK,” he’d say. “I’ll try again next time.” Each time, you could see God’s special peace that truly does pass all understanding, firmly emanate from within him – Boone was authentic and truly blessed.
He finally passed the written test on his seventh attempt. That night, he came home with success written all over his face, carrying two steaming pizzas for the family, to celebrate. “Tonight is party. Today, I pass test. Really!” He beamed as he showed us his greatly prized driver’s permit.
Many years have passed since Boone first stole our hearts. My family feels great admiration for the man Boone has become. Each step has brought him closer to the independence he has worked so steadfastly to achieve. He struggles on, but with an unshakable confidence in himself and the love that brought him to this place in his life. He has been blessed by God to preserve his need to love and cherish life against all odds. He continues to see new dreams in his life come true. We have been deeply blessed and enriched for having been used by God to share in Boone’s journey toward fulfillment.
Boone no longer lives with us. He has his own place now. He visits often because he knows that we are his family. He doesn’t peddle over on his bicycle, however. He’s now driving the love of his life – his 1990 Camaro. I guess he did deviate somewhat from our typical American tradition. Being a poor refugee with no credit, he paid cash!
“And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint . . . “ Romans 5:3-5 (NASB)