Images by John Hook

At Olay’s Thai Express in ‘Aiea, Sandy “Olay” Somsanith sits comfortably in a chair, her hands tender from working in the kitchen all day. Dedicated patrons flow in and out of the humble space, which smells richly of lemongrass and basil, and are greeted by Somsanith’s daughter Macy Khounkeo, the second of six children. At 59, Somsanith has been in the food industry her entire life, though this is loose terminology, considering she started as a young girl selling vegetables on the streets of Don Kho in pre-socialist Laos.

“Before it was easy, whenever you want to do, go sell, go school, do whatever,” Somsanith says with a heavy Laotian accent. “After the communists come, we have to follow what they tell us to do.” As a young adult, Somsanith witnessed the harsh nature of the Pathet Lao, as they worked to build a new socialist society. They struck first at food speculators, closing down markets and occupying the stores of major import merchants, forcing many citizens to leave for Thailand. Somsanith and many other peasants were constantly checked and asked by soldiers for travel documents when they attempted to bring food and animals to town to sell. The flow of food to the urban areas began to dwindle, and in response, government ministries were urged to grow their own vegetables and raise poultry and livestock. When Somsanith was finally recruited to work on one of these farms, she feared her daughter would be taken from her. There was only one choice to be made: Somsanith knew they had to flee.

So, on a fateful day 36 years ago, Somsanith packed all of her belongings into a large plastic bag and filled it with air to prevent it from getting wet, then set out for the Mekong River. With her 2-year-old daughter, Nokdavanh, on her back, Somsanith made the three-hour swim across the river, through heavy rainfall and flooding, each stroke accompanied by the looming threat of alligators. “[It was] not too far, but take long,” she recalls. “I swim, just little bit, little bit.” Arriving as refugees on the eastern coast of Thailand in the Ubon Ratchathani province, Somsanith and Nokdavanh ran for cover in a camp nearby. “It was very scary,” she says. “If the army see me, they kill me.”

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The family had escaped the Pathet Lao regime, but tragedy soon struck. Not long after Somsanith’s husband was reunited with them—having come from another refugee camp located nearby—Nokdavanh died suddenly of an unknown illness. “She run, she happy, but at night, her stomach,” Somsanith says. “I take her to hospital, three days later, she passed away.”

Desperate for a better life, Somsanith wrote to Vieng Bounthong, an old friend who had lived near her in Don Kho, who had since moved to California. He agreed to sponsor Somsanith, pledging to help ease the family’s transition into America by setting them up in a place to live and covering their living expenses while they looked for work. So in 1980, after a year and a half of living in the camp, Somsanith’s family boarded a plane to Orange County. Somsanith had given birth to the couple’s second child, Chanhthay Dou, only weeks before. “When I come to America, my baby only 2 week old, and had no diaper, nothing,” she says. “I don’t know how to ask for anything. I no speak English!”

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Somsanith worked odd jobs in California, then Utah, until in 1993, she and her family moved to Hawai‘i, where a cousin was living. Five years ago, marking the apex of a long uphill journey, Somsanith opened her own namesake restaurant, Olay’s Thai Express, in ‘Aiea.

“My mother’s life is pretty amazing,” says Khounkeo, taking a break from running the front of the restaurant. Her black hair and brown eyes resemble her mother’s, but when she speaks of Somsanith, her face brightens like that of a child. “I owe her so much. This is why I do what I do, even though it can never be enough to repay her for what she did for me and my siblings. They had recruited her to go work on a farm, pretty much like slavery, but she didn’t want to be owned by anyone. … She risked it all for a better life for all of us.”

Find Olay’s Thai Express at farmers markets around O‘ahu, as well as at its ‘Aiea location, 99-927 Iwaena St.

This story is part of our Migration Issue.