Members of the Ly family of St. Paul stopped by Staples recently to visit the town they first called “home” after leaving a refugee camp in Thailand in 1976. The family, who lived in Staples for two years, was sponsored by the Christian & Missionary Alliance Church in Staples. Originally from Laos, the Lys fled to Thailand in 1975, to escape communist control of their country. Pictured from left are Dawn (Schimpp) Timbs, Xiong My Ly, Chy Ly, Doua Chi Ly (Charles); and Janice and Ivan Voeltz. Timbs and the V

Ly family escaped from Laos to Staples 40 years ago

Halloween, winter weather, were among first experiences
“We had no idea where Minnesota was, but we knew that it was somewhere in America,” Charles said.

As our country celebrated 200 years of freedom in 1976, the Ly family of Laos celebrated their first year of freedom in the United States of America.

It’s been nearly 40 years since the Lys first set foot on U.S. soil, putting down temporary roots in Staples.

The small Minnesota town would be their home for the next two-and-a-half years. It was where they were first introduced to the ‘land of the free and the home of the brave’...a country they would eventually claim as their own.

They arrived from Thailand on Oct. 29, 1976...Chy Ly, his wife Xiong My; and their four children, Doua Chi, Kablia, Leng and Kasoua. Although adjusting to a new culture was difficult at times, it did not compare to the difficulties the Lys had faced in their homeland.

Recently, Chy Ly, his wife Xiong My and their son, Doua Chi (now known as Charles), traveled from St. Paul to visit their first American home and stroll down memory lane. Charles later corresponded with the Staples World via email to share some additional thoughts.

“After the United States pulled out from the Vietnam War in 1975, my family escaped communist control of Laos into a refugee camp in Thailand,” Charles said, adding that they were there for a little over a year. “While we were in Thailand, my father (a former soldier who fought alongside the American soldiers in Laos) was asked if he would like to be sponsored by a Christian & Missionary Alliance church to come to the United States,” Charles went on, noting that the Ly family had been a part of this denomination when they lived in Laos.

It was something that Chy and his family were indeed interested in; and later learned that they would be sponsored by the C&MA Church in Staples, Minn.

“We had no idea where Minnesota was, but we knew that it was somewhere in America,” Charles said.

The Lys arrived to their new country in late October. Charles, who was 12 years old at the time, said he remembers stepping off the plane at the Brainerd Airport and that the weather was “very cold.” From there, the family was driven to their new home on 6th St. NE in Staples. “The house is no longer was located behind what used to be the Faith Lutheran Church,” Charles said.

Two days after they arrived, the Lys were introduced to the American holiday of Halloween. “We didn’t know anything about trick-or-treating,” Charles said, recalling that a man from the C&MA Church had dropped off two kids at the Lys’ house to hand out candy. “My mother looked outside and noticed all of the children in costumes. At the time, she thought they were little monsters running around town looking for food...there had always been rumors in the refugee camps about monsters and man-eating giants in America. Now, as an adult, and having lived in this country for 40 years, I laugh about that first Halloween experience.”

Winter was also a new experience for the Ly family and an exciting one for the children. “Looking at the sky with the snow falling made me realize that I was actually in the midst of a winter wonderland, one that I had only heard stories about before in Laos.”

In addition to noticing the differences in weather and landscape, Charles said he noticed that people looked different from what he was used to. “They reminded me of these dolls I had seen in Laos with blue or green eyes. I noticed how much different I looked from them with my black hair, yellow skin and almond eyes. I felt out of place in this strange land with strange looking people who spoke a strange language I did not understand.”

During the next two-plus years in Staples, the Lys encountered a number of new experiences, including learning English and being introduced to foreign cuisine such as mashed potatoes.

Doua Chi (Charles), Kablia and Leng attended Lincoln Model School, and Kasoua attended Head Start. “I was in the fifth grade when I started,” Charles said. “Mr. Tollefson was my teacher. All of the students called him, ‘Mr. T.’ I remember he gave my family his color TV.”

Not being able to understand the English language was very difficult. “I remember just smiling a lot when I was spoken to. It was very frustrating not being able to understand what was being said and not being able to reply back.”

Charles remembered being at the Alliance Church for a gathering one day. “The kids were playing hide-and-seek with a volleyball and I had hidden it behind a divider in the gymnasium. Later on, I couldn’t find it and later realized that a group of elderly ladies had taken the ball. One of them held it out to me and asked me to ‘say the magic word.’ I replied ‘ball’ but she kept repeating, ‘What’s the magic word?’ She repeated this a few times and then finally explained to me that the magic word was ‘Please.’ After saying ‘please’ I was given the ball back.”

During their time in Staples, Chy and Xiong My welcomed their youngest son, Doua Hley, who was born in 1977.  Chy also attended vocational school in Staples and was later offered a manufacturing job at FMC Corporation in the Twin Cities. The Ly family subsequently moved to St. Paul and over the years, each of them became U.S. citizens.

“At first, I did miss Staples because of its small town feel,” Charles said. “However, I do like St. Paul for its diverse communities as well as the opportunities available. St. Paul is home to the second largest Hmong population in the U.S. and there are many successful refugees and immigration stories out of St. Paul.”

Now 51, Charles lives in Woodbury and works as a St. Paul Police Officer. “I’ve worked for the department for the past 26 years.” He has a son, Calvin; and a daughter, Grace.

His father retired in 2007, and his mother (who worked as an interpreter at Regions Hospital) retired in 2005. They enjoy spending time with their 11 grandchildren.

Charles’ brother, Leng, lives in Maplewood and works as a systems engineer for Metropolitan. He was in the marine corps and served in the first Gulf War. Charles’ other brother, Doua Hley, lives in St. Paul and works as a reimbursement specialist. Kasoua, Charles’ youngest sister, lives in St. Paul and works for the state as a state program administrator. Sadly, his other sister, Kablia, passed away in 2002. She was 32 years old.

It is hard to believe that four decades have passed since he and his family first arrived at their new homeland, Charles said.

“The U.S. is a great country. It truly is the land of opportunities if one is willing to work hard. I cannot imagine myself living anywhere else but the United States. It has been my home since 1976 and will continue to be the home of my children and their children’s children.”

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