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Laotian Refugee Gives Back to Lincoln Community

Soulinnee Phan
City of Lincoln City Clerk

Soulinnee Phan’s parents came to Nebraska from Laos, fleeing the Communists. A few years prior, they’d swum for their lives across the Mekong River and met at a Thai refugee camp. By the time Phan’s mother boarded a military plane to America in 1980, she was six months pregnant. Three months later, Phan was born.

Within a year, her father was hired by Store Kraft, a factory in Beatrice that manufactures retail store fixtures. But Phan’s childhood wasn’t easy. Her parents worked long hours, so she became the main caregiver to her siblings. And despite being born on American soil, she felt like an outsider in the mostly white town. Kids in elementary school bullied her and made fun of her looks. In high school, a group of boys drove by her home and told her family to “go back home.” “I endured a lot growing up,” she says. “I didn’t see another minority until I was a junior in high school.”

When she was 17, she ran away to California. After years of job hopping, she longed for more stability and returned to Nebraska. On a whim, she applied to an entry-level position at the Lincoln’s City Clerk’s office, thinking she didn’t have a chance. In fact, she beat out over 100 other applicants. Today, she heads the department.

Over her 16 years at the job, Phan has helped hire a more diverse staff and improved the way the city responds to public complaints. She volunteers as a translator at the Asian Community Center, and helps new immigrants and refugees adjust to life in Nebraska. Through My City Academy, she teaches new arrivals how to navigate different city departments.

I want to give back and be supportive of the first-generation kids who face the same problems I did.

Soulinnee Phan

Phan wishes her parents had access to similar support networks when they arrived in America. She also sees how municipal support can change people’s views about government in general. “Many refugees have fled corrupt governments and lost faith in public institutions,” she says. “By talking to city officials and building relationships with them, they can overcome their fears and learn that not every government person is the same.”

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