The Americanization of Satsay

From refugee camp to gridiron in one hectic decade

Laos and Thailand are far away. "I don't remember much about back then," Satsay says, "just what I hear about it. All I know is that coming here was the biggest thing that ever happened to us."

IN THE COZY living room of his home near 35th Avenue and Thunderbird, Chan Singpradith tells his family's story. A slight, bright-eyed man of 51 with a droll sense of humor, Chan gestures around the room to the small American flag in a cup atop a color television, to the many framed photos of his children in graduation garb and sports uniforms.

"See all this stuff?" he begins softly. "When we came here, we had nothing but each other. We have had much luck as a family."

The Singpradiths are middle-class Buddhists who are devoted to family and to their network of friends--some Laotian, some not. Chan works these days on an assembly line at a Tempe computer-parts plant, while his wife is a housekeeper at the Pointe at Tapatio Cliffs.

Chan grew up dirt poor in a village in southern Laos and moved as a young man to the capital city of Vientiane. He became a cop, and by the early 1970s, he had risen to lieutenant. He and Phet didn't have much money as they raised their large family, but he says they were better off than most of Laos' three million other inhabitants.

War was raging at that time in Southeast Asia, a war that had nearly as devastating an effect on Laos as it did on neighboring Vietnam. By the time the insurgent Communists and the Laotian government inked a political settlement in February 1973, more than two million tons of bombs had been dropped on Laos by American planes--more than the total tonnage dropped by the United States during World War II.

The nation's bloody civil war continued despite the settlement. In April 1975, as political events in Cambodia and South Vietnam also were reaching a climax, the Pathet Lao--the Laotian Communists--took over.

Within a few months, they sent thousands of upper-echelon civil servants and military officers to rural labor camps for "re-education"--often-violent brainwashing. That left mid-level cops like Chan Singpradith in charge for a time.

"We knew they were going to take us away, too," he says, "and we didn't see anyone coming back home like they had promised. I wasn't any big deal, but they were going to `re-educate' the whole department."

By the end of 1975, Chan Singpradith's time for re-education had come, and he was ordered to report for a bus ride to oblivion.

Chan rushed home and told his wife that he was going to flee to Thailand: "I told them to meet me there in one week."

With the clothes on his back and the equivalent of ten dollars in his pocket, he and a friend crossed the Mekong River into Thailand. "I waited until night, and this guy took me and a friend over in a canoe," Chan recalls. "I had no papers, no nothing. I didn't know what was going to happen."

Chan found his way to Nong Khai, a camp crowded with 46,000 refugees, where he waited apprehensively until his family showed up.

(Chan's account of the family's escape is corroborated by his children. However, Barry Horst, the Singpradiths' Phoenix sponsor, tells a different story: "Mr. Singpradith put them on a log or a piece of lumber, and he floated the thing across the Mekong himself. I heard that for sure. He won't admit that he did that. He's very humble. If it wasn't for his heroism, they wouldn't have made it intact, or at all." Told twice of Horst's version, Chan Singpradith stares straight ahead, then repeats a condensed version of his original story.)

The Singpradiths soon moved from Nong Khai to a camp at Ubon, across the border from Chan's home village in Laos. They stayed in jam-packed Ubon for about three-and-a-half years.

"We didn't have much to do there except to think about what to do next," Chan says. "Very boring. I would work outside the camp now and then for a little money--real hard work, construction, whatever they wanted me to do. It wasn't easy, but you could live if you didn't get sick and die. My kids weren't getting education, but we would try to learn any English that we could. I knew a little bit about the U.S., and I knew it was the place to go."

In July 1979, Chan finally got the good word.
"This person from the Catholic church told us that we had a sponsor in Phoenix, Arizona," he says. "I did not know what Phoenix, Arizona, was. They told me it was hot there. I was glad, because I do not like cold weather. But we would have gone anywhere."

BARRY HORST and his wife Cathy were watching 60 Minutes one Sunday night in 1979 in their Phoenix home when they saw a segment on boat people.

"They gave a number you could call if you were interested in sponsoring someone," recalls Horst, the administrator of a westside medical clinic. "My wife and I felt we should call, though we'd never done anything like it before. We called New York, and they gave us the number of the local Catholic Family Social Services.

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