Profile: Channapha Khamvongsa of Legacies of War

I met Channapha Khamvongsa at the Laotian American National Conference earlier in April. She serves as the Executive Director of Legacies of War. She previously worked at the Ford Foundation and Public Interest Projects. Channapha was appointed to the Seattle Women’s Commission and served on the boards of the Refugee Women’s Alliance and Conference on Asian Pacific American Leadership. Please find below a short interview of Channapha and her work with Legacies of War.

1. What is the mission of Legacies of War? What are your goals?

Legacies of War is the only U.S.-based organization dedicated to raising awareness about the current devastation that has resulted from the Vietnam War-era bombing in Laos. Our mission is to advocate for the clearance of unexploded bombs and provide space for healing the wounds of war. Since our founding in 2004, we have worked with Laotian Americans, bombing survivors, veterans, artists, non-governmental organizations and others bring people together and create healing and transformation out of the wreckage of war. Our work has resulted in the first ever U.S. Congressional hearing – held in April 2010 – on the current devastation of unexploded ordinance in Laos. We are asking Congress to increase funding for bomb clearance and victim assistance in Laos. According to the U.S. State Department, it spends between $2 to $3 million a year. Compare this to the $17 million per day it spent bombing Laos for nine years. Put another way, the U.S. spent more in 3 days bombing Laos than it has spent in the last 15 years cleaning it up.

2. How did Legacies of War come about? 

The secret U.S. bombing of Laos resulted in Laos being the most bombed country in history per capita. It began in 1964 and ended in 1973. This was the same year I was born in Vientiane, the capital of Laos. When I was six years old, my family left Laos due to the country’s political instability. We spent a year in a Thai refugee camp and eventually resettled in the U.S. Many of the 400,000 Lao refugees who now reside in the U.S. have similar stories. We were fortunate to resettle in America, but were sad to leave behind family members and friends who we feared we might never see again. Much has changed since then. Over the past ten years, improved relations between the Lao and U.S. governments have allowed me to travel back to Laos numerous times. Like thousands of other tourists who visit Laos every year, I feel a deep affection for the people, culture and land that I barely remember from my childhood. Reconnecting with my Lao heritage included discovering the dark history and lingering effects of the Secret War in Laos. This discovery led me to establish Legacies of War.

Large0029 3. You recently testified at a Congressional hearing. Please say something about that experience. 

The first House hearing on the current devastation caused by deadly unexploded bombs was nothing short of remarkable. Coincidently, the hearing was exactly 39 years to the week when a Senate hearing, chaired by the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy, helped to expose the U.S. secret bombing of Laos and shed light on the destruction and displacement of hundreds of thousands of Lao refugees. It was particularly meaningful that 40 years later, two Asian American Congressmen – Chairman Faleomavaega and Congressman Honda – would take up leadership on this issue. At the hearing, there was a sense that the democratic process still works – that no matter how small a community or distant an issue might seem, our voices matter. And the squeaky wheel that was created at the hearing will reverberate in the halls of Congress and State Department for years to come.

4. How did you get into the nonprofit sector and what skill set would you say helps you the most with your current work? 

I’ve been involved with the nonprofit sector since I was a teenager, when I first volunteered with the American Red Cross to make toys for children at a hospital. Since then, I’ve been involved with all types of organizations in the sector – from small, grassroots all-volunteer groups to large, international organizations working in multiple continents. Working with such diverse groups, I learned to recognize the continuum of strategies – from direct services to advocacy. And the transformative role of the individual, community and society. Learning how to analyze, develop and implement strategies for change is probably the most important skill I’ve developed. It has helped me to approach my current work holistically.

For more information, please visit Making Laos Safe.

About the Illustration: The illustrations and narratives were collected between December 1970 and May 1971 in the Vientiane refugee camps, where U.S. bombings victims fled. The drawings and narratives represent the voiceless, faceless and nameless who endured an air war campaign perpetuated in secrecy.

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