Sioux City Journal | 10/16/16
by: Katie Colling
Photo by: Tim Hynds, Sioux City Journal
SIOUX CITY | The atmosphere was both solemn and jubilant Thursday outside the Martin Luther King Jr. Transportation Center as community members dedicated the first five sculptures in a project honoring those who have helped the marginalized.
In a moving ceremony held in the Martin Luther King Jr. Transportation Center on Oct. 6, the Celebrating Community Project paid tribute to four individuals who dedicated their lives to identifying with and helping improve the circumstances of Siouxlanders living in marginalized communities.
As their bronze busts were unveiled, attendees heard about the lifetime work of each of this year’s honorees – Asian American honoree Nguyen Thi Hong Cuc, Children honoree George Boykin, Disabled Americans honoree Dick Owens and Hispanic/Latino Americans honoree Tomasa Guerra Salas. The vision and outstanding execution of artist Mark Avery and the Foundation is matched only by the vision of what will ultimately be 14 honorees (including Rev. King) that America can live up to the promise of equal opportunity and justice, and it is worth the fight to attain it.
Recipients Hong Cuc and Tomasa Salas gave endlessly of themselves to help their fellow immigrants adjust and adapt to their new country; so resolute was their belief in the promise of America, it became their life’s work to make it real for others, too.
They aren’t alone.
I’d like you to meet Tom LoVan and hear the story of his family’s arduous journey from immigrant to United States citizen. He graciously shares his story because he firmly believes that immigrants enrich our country and he wants us to learn about each other “so we won’t judge by ethnicity or skin color.”
Tom was born in Laos in 1963 to parents who had fled their original homeland, the Tai Federation, when their country was dissolved in 1954. They received asylum in Laos where both parents worked for the U.S. Embassy – his father as a cook and his mother as a secretary. In 1978, after the Indo-China War expanded into Laos, they fled once again, this time to Thailand where they were arrested by the Thai police as illegal immigrants. Subsequently, his family sought asylum and was placed in the United Nations camp in Thailand, where 80,000 people were crammed into a small campus and where the family of five was allotted five gallons of clean water, two fish and one cup of rice per day. Tom recalled that the refugees were held in such low regard by their hosts that Thailand’s name for this camp was “zero.” As in zero dignity, zero rights – they were nothing. Because the LoVans had been staff for the U.S. Embassy, they were admitted as refugees to the United States and underwent rigorous interviewing by the State Department. The interviewers were former C.I.A. operatives who spoke fluent Laotian; it was obvious the interviewers knew the answers before they even asked them – that is how thoroughly the family was investigated before being approved and processed.
Tom insists they were fortunate, even though they lost their home and their possessions and interrupted his and his brother’s education, because there were many Laotians who had to stay in that U.N. camp for 10 years. The LoVans were part of the second batch of Tai Dam refugees sponsored and brought to Iowa under Gov. Robert Ray’s Taskforce for Indochinese Resettlement (renamed the Iowa Refugee Service Center). The Methodist Church in Marcus, Iowa, sponsored the family, so at age 16 Tom became a Marcus high school student and his father went to work at K Products, starting life over in a strange land with a strange language and entirely new customs. What wasn’t strange, though, was the sincere welcome and climate that encouraged him to flourish under a national constitution that offered freedom and opportunity.
Tom became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1980, then pursued an education and a career that would allow him to give back to his new country that he loves – his home. For years he was an interpreter for the courts (county, state and federal) and for Lutheran Social Services. During President Clinton’s time in office, Tom was invited to the White House, after which he passed security clearance and flew on Air Force One to Vietnam, where he served as a translator for the president.
Today, Tom is living his purpose-filled life as associate pastor for Morningside Lutheran Church, having been inspired as a young man by Rev. King’s dream and powerful example. In closing our conversation, Tom stated, “If we want the American dream, we must have immigration and overcome our fears and prejudices.”
Tom’s story, as well as Hong Cuc’s and Tomasa Salas’, reminds me that they have been able to face hard challenges and, right now, they are my inspiration because as a nation we have no end of hard challenges ahead of us.
As shown in Sioux City Journal’s 10-16-2016. Please visit Sioux City Journal – article for full article and photos.