Veun Virasak-Holmes standing in her garden
Veun Virasak-Holmes smiles in her garden on West Hills Road. She said she is always happiest when in her garden. (Photo by Eric Niemann)

It is heart-wrenching to watch the images of displaced Ukrainian refugees fleeing their homes and their country to escape the grim realities of war. While it seems a world away for most of us, a few local residents have experienced the trauma and uncertainty of fleeing their home country firsthand.

Coming up in May, it will be Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, which according to the asianpacificheritage.gov, pays tribute to the generation of Asian and Pacific Islanders who have enriched America’s history and are instrumental in its future success.

In preparation of this observance, Love of Learning reached out to Veun Virasak-Holmes whose family was forced to give up their homeland and escape communist controlled Laos back in 1975. Through perseverance, resilience and lots of hard work, they eventually found a better life here in Philomath.

Veun now manages a small farm called Veun’s Garden on West Hills Road. She sells produce from the farm at a booth at the Corvallis Farmers’ Market, while her brother and niece support the Philomath Farmers’ Market throughout the summer.

Many of you may have done business with Veun’s brother, Vieng Virasak, or his daughter and Veun’s niece, Priscilla. She is currently studying pharmacy at Oregon State University. They both work at the Veun’s Garden booth at the Philomath Farmers’ Market. Their fresh tomatoes, cherries, blueberries, corn and other produce are a delicious delight to many patrons. 

Veun’s Garden’s booth at Philomath Farmers’ Market. (Photo by Eric Niemann)

I asked Veun if she would be willing to share her point of view with all of us about what it means to be an American. I would offer that her story is a part of our story. Her powerful reflection is provided here.

What it means to be an American:

“I was born in Vientiane Laos, a landlocked country in Southeast Asia. Laos is a small forested, covered mountain country about the size of Utah in the United States. Our family lived in a straw house out in the country, ideal for a tropical monsoon climate surrounded by rice paddy fields with banana trees. As a child, my brothers and I would play in the rice fields while our parents worked.

“Life was peaceful until Laos fell to communism in 1975. During this time, the royal families were captured, tortured and executed. At this point, my parents had no choice but to give up their homeland and plan an escape. My mother would escape with five children across the Mekong River into Camp Thailand. Once our escape was successful, our father would later follow. 

“After living as refugees in Camp Thailand for two years, our family got sponsorship to come to America. Our family had to endure a dangerous journey and obstacles to start a new life in America. Upon arrival in America, my parents found work. My brother, sister and I attended grade school immediately.  

Veun Virasak graduated with Philomath High’s Class of 1989. (Photo courtesy of Philomath High School)

“After graduation from Philomath High School in 1989, I continued my undergraduate study at Oregon State University. With a bachelor of science degree in microbiology, I later went to work for Hewlett-Packard Co., to manufacture ink-jet printheads.  At HP, I worked with people with diverse ethnicities and backgrounds; when problems arise, we work as a team to troubleshoot and resolve problems.

“At the beginning of my career, I started a family. My husband and I have two healthy sons. They, too, had the opportunity to go to school and receive higher education. My oldest son is now working as a chemical engineer for a major U.S. company.  The youngest son is in his third year pursuing his education at Oregon State University in computer science.

“America, the land of peace, liberty and freedom. My mother would always talk about education in America for us. I am very blessed and grateful to be living in America because I have the opportunity to get an education, work hard and take care of my family. It is a privilege to have the freedom and opportunity to choose your own path in life. Each and every day is a blessing and I thank God for what I have achieved and will give back to those that are less fortunate. I have great gratitude for what America offered and appreciate being an American. 

Veun Virasak-Holmes shows tender care for the vegetables in Veun’s Garden surrounded by beautiful springtime tulips in bloom. (Photo by Eric Niemann)

“As the war in Ukraine unfolds, I am saddened and terrified for the people of Ukraine. Unimaginable, here we are in the 21st century and mankind can’t find ways to live together peacefully. Blinded by tremendous greed and power, Vladimir Putin unprovoked the Russian invasion in Ukraine. Killing innocent people — mothers and children fleeing their homeland while young and old men stay behind to defend their country.

“As Russian military demolishes cities to rumble, it brings memories of how the United State heavily bombed Laos between 1964 and 1973 in the Vietnam War. Laos is the most-bombed country in history. For whatever reason, be it as part of a convert attempt to control the spread of communism, competition for territory and resource, economic, religious or political.

“War — it is a dark and horrific path for human suffering.”

(Eric Niemann is a former mayor and city councilor in Philomath. He can be reached at Lifeinphilomath@gmail.com).