The Oudomvilay family of (from left) Tang, Somphou, Tommy, Tao and Sourisane.
The Oudomvilay family of (from left) Tang, Somphou, Tommy, Tao and Sourisane. Jerad Williams

Laos to Lismore

FEW customers at the Lao Thai restaurant in Alstonville could guess at the dramatic life that Tom Oudomvilay, who runs the eatery, and his family were involved in before they came to Australia as refugees in 1976.

A year before, the Pathet Lao, a communist political movement, had taken over Laos, abolishing the monarchy and establishing the Lao People’s Democratic Republic.

Many former politicians were sent to labour camps but some, including Tom’s father, Dr Somphou Oudomvilay, the Deputy Minister of Economics and Planning, were given a role in the new order, despite their non-communist status.

However, little more than a year later, he was removed from office. He was followed and watched and the family home was fire-bombed. After he was offered bodyguards, he decided to seek political asylum.

“I decided that once I was being watched by guards, there would be no way to escape,” Dr Oudomvilay, now 76, said.

He chose Australia because he had visited here twice and believed the family would be accepted.

Married to his second wife, Sourisane, he had two young children – Tom and his sister Tao – as well as four children from his first marriage. Tom’s younger brother Tang was born later in Australia.

“We crossed the Mekong River on a boat crewed by men to whom my father had to pay what would amount to about $18,000 today,” Tom, now 36, said.

“He took all his children except his eldest son from his first marriage. We had to leave him behind in boarding school in Vietnam.

“It wasn’t until years later that he was able to join the family. It was one of the only times I have seen my father cry.”

The Oudomvilays went to Bangkok while waiting to come to Australia, then to Sydney, where they lived for two years.

Dr Oudomvilay, who was educated at the Sorbonne in Paris, worked as a machinist in a factory and had a night job while his wife also worked so they could save $15,000 to buy a farm in Wollongbar.

In Sydney the family had been assisted by the Uniting Church and in Wollongbar they again stepped in. The Oudomvilays lived with Alstonville locals Barbara and Jim Curthoys while a working party was organised to build a house.

Dr Oudomvilay started a farm. “I wanted to grow things Asian people could use for cooking,” he said. “There was no lemongrass, chilli, or other herbs around that we have now. For myself, I felt that if I could see a tree that I used to see in Laos, I would remember home.”

Tom, who attended Alstonville Primary and Alstonville High, said that he was never teased by Aussie kids about being different, although they were fascinated by the sticky rice he used to take to school.

“I felt blessed that I was accepted and that we were given the opportunity to create a life for ourselves,” he said.

“For me, my roots are in Laos but I will always see Australia as home.”

He has five children and is married to an Australian, Lisa, who he said he was very much in love with.

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