How SoCal Refugees Led The Movement to Teach More Kids About Laotian History

The family of Bobbie Oudinarath (in blue) fled Laos and became refugees in the U.S. (Courtesy of Bobbie Oudinarath)

Last summer, Bobbie Oudinarath got some startling news. State lawmakers had voted to expand what's taught about Southeast Asia in public schools. That's great, she thought, except that the bill made no mention of Laos, the war-torn country her family fled decades ago before making it to Southern California.

Oudinarath, who lives in the San Diego area, and other Laotian Americans were so perturbed they started working on how to correct the "oversight."

Now, they're about to get their wish. California lawmakers gave final approval today to a bill to include Laotian history and the experience of Laotian American refugees in the state school curriculum.

"This last year not only woke us up, but I think it also stimulated us to be more involved in the political arena," Oudinarath said. "That's the bigger-picture win."

The Laotian American community, who number about 70,000 in the state and about 7,000 in the Los Angeles region, is accustomed to its past being erased. While the Vietnam War was widely covered by the U.S. media and was a flashpoint for anti-war protesters, the American public knew little about the so-called "Secret War" that the CIA was fighting at the same time against Communists in Laos with help from the Royal Lao Army and civilians.

After the Communists won, Oudinarath's family — which at the time included eight children — decided to leave the country. Her father had been targeted for "re-education," in which people were forced into prison-like camps. The family fled for the safety of a refugee camp in neighboring Thailand, but they first had to avoid the notice of soldiers patrolling the Mekong River with guns.

"I still remember the night we escaped and crept down the cliffs of the Mekong River, and my parents telling me, 'OK. We need to be very quiet. We're playing a game,'" Oudinarath said.

A group of Laotians based in San Diego County led a statewide effort to include Laotian history in state textbooks. (Courtesy of Bobbie Oudinarath)

About three years later in 1982, her family was resettled in Southern California. Oudinarath grew up in Isla Vista near Santa Barbara, before heading to the San Diego area for college and eventually a career in banking.

San Diego has one of the state's largest Laotian American communities, and it mobilized quickly after learning about the passage of AB 895, a bill sponsored by state Sen. Janet Nguyen, R-Garden Grove, that was designed to include the experiences of Vietnamese, Cambodian and Hmong refugees.

The omission of Laos in the bill confounded and angered Laotian American groups. In a statement, the Laotian American National Alliance, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy nonprofit, called on Nguyen to amend her bill:

"The disregard of the refugees from Laos which include the Hmong who came to the United States under the Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act of 1975, is a disservice to a population that has largely been underserved and disregarded. The error to specifically ignore a group of Southeast Asians compromises the integrity and accuracy of historical facts, as well as current and future community cohesiveness."

Nguyen explained in a statement at the time that the bill reflected her own experiences as a refugee from Vietnam and that the oversight was not intentional.

Oudinarath said community members began to focus on adding Laotian American curriculum to textbooks on their own after meeting with elders at a temple in San Diego. A group called LaoSD formed to lead the campaign and found a bill sponsor in Assemblymember Shirley Weber, a San Diego Democrat, who had been quick to take a meeting with advocates.

State Assemblywoman Shirley Weber leads a rally for SB 1393. (Courtesy of Bobbie Oudinarath)

The bill, AB 1393, has now cleared both houses — the Assembly in May, and the Senate this week. The Assembly issued a final vote of approval Thursday.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has about a month to sign the bill into law.

The plan is to make the Laos curriculum available to California students by 2024.

Without doing so, "we're not telling the complete story," Oudinarath said. "So, this is really about inclusion."