In the community

Refugee family recalls Vale’s generosity when they were strangers

VALE – On a December night in 1979, Sai Vang sat in the back seat of a loaded van, squished between her parents and eight siblings as they rode from the Boise airport to their new home of Vale.

It was the 15-year-old’s first night in America and a stark contrast from the refugee camp in Thailand where her family had been living for five years. 

“The first thing I remember was the snow,” said Vang.

Looking out the car window, Vang was mesmerized by twinkling Christmas lights reflecting off the thick blanket of snow.

“I thought to myself, ‘I don’t know how they make the lights blink light that’,” said Vang.

“It was so amazing,” she said.

Vang and her family never forgot the kindness of the people of Vale, particularly Frank and Mary Kavanaugh.

The Kavanaughs later moved to Portland, and that’s where the Vangs and their memories recently caught up with the former Vale couple.

The kinship started when Frank Kavanaugh took a call to see if he could help a refugee family resettling in the U.S.

“Frank called around to the different churches and people that he knew to form a committee and help decide if we could do this or not,” said Mary Kavanaugh.

The Kavanaughs themselves had been in Vale just three years at that point, moving from San Francisco to raise their six children away from the rush of the big city. The couple worked as teachers and were passionate about giving back to their community.

“It was part of our religious belief to help those in need,” said Kavanaugh. When she heard about the Vang family, which had two parents and eight children at the time, she figured that “somewhere out there in the farms, somebody would be able to help this family,” she said.

People in the Vale community offered a house, donated clothes for all of the family members, and stocked the fridge for their arrival.

“People jumped right in to help,” said Kavanaugh.

After picking the Vangs at the airport, Frank spent two nights in the house with the family to ensure that everyone was settling in.

None of the Vangs spoke English, so they communicated with Kavanaugh using facial signals and hand gestures.

“I couldn’t speak a word of English. I couldn’t read the ABCs,” said Vang.

As she adjusted to her new life in America, Vang learned English and adapted to local customs.

“Even though we couldn’t speak the language, people smiled,” said Vang. She explained that in Laos, it wasn’t part of the culture for people to smile at each other so easily. 

“Everybody was so nice, it was kind of a culture shock,” said Vang.

Those first few months were “like a breath of fresh air,” said Vang.

Kavanaugh said the refugee family was “sometimes overwhelmed by the generosity.”

“The people of Vale were very welcoming,” she said. “There was always someone to there to help. If a need arose, someone was there to meet the need.”

Heur Vang, Sai’s father, got a job at a local farm while the children started school. A few months after they arrived in Vale, they were put in touch with another Hmong family living nearby in Payette that helped them translate the “more complicated” conversations about their wants and needs, said Vang.

The Kavanaughs checked on them often and the two families formed a tight bond.

In 1982, the Vangs moved to Seattle to be near other relatives.

“They said that they were really thankful for their time but they did need to go,” Kavanaugh said.

“We were sad to leave the community,” said Vang.

The two families stayed in touch for a time but eventually lost contact.

Still, the Vangs thought often of Vale.

“The people who helped us, who supported us never really left our minds. They’re in our hearts and our history,” she said.

The Kavanaughs moved to Portland in 1997. About two years ago, a friend request popped up on Kavanaugh’s Facebook account. It was a Vang.

 “I came running to Frank, saying “Oh look who we found!’,” said Kavanaugh. “We answered back right away.”

A few months later, the Vangs traveled to Portland – 17 people in three vans – to see their long-ago benefactors.

It was like “a family getting back together with lost family,” said Kavanaugh.

“There were a lot of tears, lots of laughs and hugs. It was a really good visit,” she said.

Last month, 32 Vang family members drove to Portland for Frank’s “Nearly 90” birthday party. For his birthday, he asked for a picture of the Vang family. He got his wish.

The Vangs presented Frank Kavanuagh with a large portrait with nearly 50 Vang relatives. Vang’s husband, Tony Provenzano, told the gathering about the family’s gratitude.

“We wanted to share with him that we are so thankful,” said Vang. “They gave us the opportunity to live the life we wanted to live.”

The speech was a hit at the party.

“I was happy to know that they remembered their time with us and in Vale,” Frank Kavanaugh said.

In an email to the Enterprise last week, Frank wrote that while “much credit and gratitude was given to Mary and myself…I believe that it should be shared by the many generous people of Vale who supported the Vang family.”

His wife echoed that sentiment.

“We want to let the people of Vale know how much they are appreciated,” Mary Kavanaugh said.

Vang, who now works in the Seattle Public Schools accounting department, said that she hasn’t been back to Vale since leaving in 1982 but that she’d like to visit within the next couple of years.

“It would take our breath away if we come back,” she said. “Vale is our first memory. It’s like history to us.”