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Lao Refugee Becomes Engaged Community Leader in Minneapolis

Sunny Chanthanouvong
Executive Director of the Lao Assistance Center

When Sunny Chanthanouvong arrived in the U.S. with his family as a Lao refugee, little did he know he would soon be among 13,000+ rebuilding their lives in Minnesota, a state as different as one might imagine from Southeast Asia. It was an uncertain time with many questions and few answers in the aftermath of a 16-year civil war. But it was the beginning of a lifelong journey in community service, civic engagement and working to reduce barriers. 21 years ago, the Office of Refugee Resettlement did not list Minneapolis among 24 cities where they thought Lao could thrive. Thankfully, history proved otherwise.

Chanthanouvong’s greatest hope for his fellow refugees is they not only remember their traditions and history, but to embrace new opportunities, such as education, small business ownership, and addressing a crisis in access to health and equity in housing. “We can change so much when we’re willing to learn from each other,” Chanthanouvong said. “We must not only remember who we have been, but who we can become.”

Formed in 1983, the Lao Assistance Center sought to meet the needs of newly arriving refugees and almost forty years later remains one of the oldest organizations based in North Minneapolis serving families in Minnesota and across the U.S. with an inspiring award-winning staff and international network of volunteers, educators, and community builders. In the 1990’s, Chanthanouvong began working with Lao youth while studying computer science in college, becoming the Executive Director of the Lao Assistance Center in 2003.

For his service to the community, Chanthanouvong has been recognized with a Virginia McKnight-Binger Unsung Hero Award, a Bush Leadership Fellowship and other distinctions. He helped bring the Lao National Conference to Minneapolis, and the first Lao American Writers Summit, and the Legacies of War: Refugee Nation Twin Cities exhibit exploring the ongoing legacy of unexploded bombs still contaminating over 30% of Laos today. His enduring passion has been helping both young and old alike to see how much difference they can make by participating in society and pursuing the best for themselves and their community through education and helping others.

About NAE

New American Economy is a bipartisan research and advocacy organization fighting for smart federal, state, and local immigration policies that help grow our economy and create jobs for all Americans. More…