‘I Hope to Help Them’

A Laotian NGO worker describes how her childhood led her to her current work.
2009-10-22
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Souly QuachAngkham in southeastern Attapeu province, March 2005.
Souly QuachAngkham in southeastern Attapeu province, March 2005.
Photo appears courtesy of SEDA-Laos

Souly QuachAngkham, founder of the Vientiane-based Social and Economic Developers Association (SEDA), left Laos more than 30 years ago to start a new life in the United States with her family. After college, she returned to Laos for the first time and was shocked to find how little the country had changed. In 2004, she established the nonprofit SEDA-Laos to create health, agricultural support, and school services to improve life for rural Laotians.

“When I was a child, I always dreamt about doing better than everyone else. In my mind and soul I always thought, ‘How can I do better than my mother, who has been a role model for me?’ My mother could always perform multiple careers and when I was a child, it made me think that I wanted to be like her, but much better.”

“Around the age of seven years, I already knew how to cook and take care of my two brothers, as if I was their mom. I cooked, cleaned, and maintained my own small business as a convenience shop owner making an income to help my family out…I ran this business on my own, while my mother took care of the finances at the beginning. The money I made, I gave to my mother to keep for me. She also had her own business to run. My mother was my financial accountant and my banker when I needed a loan.”

“One day, our house burned down and my shop did as well. I lost everything that I had earned in two years. Our grandmother, who lived in the United States, heard about our house burning. We telegrammed her to confirm that we were homeless, but that we were okay…My grandmother immediately wrote a letter to former President Jimmy Carter, requesting help to bring us to the United States.…[She] never thought that Carter would reply, but he immediately sent airline tickets and had someone take us to the Bangkok airport and fly us to the U.S.”

“When I was a teenager [in the United States], I told myself that I wanted to help poor people in third-world countries, but I had no idea which country I wanted to help. My parents raised me in the city and the urban poor were the only poor people we knew. I knew of poverty in Africa, but I never thought it was in my own backyard [in Laos]. I thought that maybe I could join the Peace Corps…”

“I graduated from university in 1993 and worked for a number of top hotels as both a manager and director, but I grew tired of it. I still wanted to help poor countries according to my original dreams. I began to travel in Southeast Asia through Singapore, Malaysia, Laos, and Thailand. When I visited Laos, I was shocked and cried every day. There was basically no change from what I remembered as a child. I returned to Laos in 1995 for only nine days but I knew that Laos was the country that would need my help. I decided to return to the United States to get more education. I knew it wasn’t time for me to return yet.”

“In 1996, my relatives called me back to Laos because they needed my help with the family business. The Asian market crisis affected us very badly, as our business was an automobile import and export company, in addition to holdings in real estate and construction. My uncle ordered me to drop school and to come save the family company…I flew to Laos in 1997 and ever since then I have been in Laos.”

“I challenged myself to turn the company around within six months. I said that if I could see results in six months I would stay, but if not I would return to the United States to continue my degree. I ended up staying in Laos for over 2-1/2 years and making millions of dollars in sales…assisting international NGOs to purchase cars…I helped the company generate income while improving the value of my own shares. I had gone from work in the auto industry to hotels, from manufacturing tuk tuks [motorized tricycles] to manufacturing soft drinks.”

“But I was exhausted with doing business because I knew it was not what I wanted in life. I was making money, but I was not happy. What I wanted in life was to help poor people break out of poverty. After our business had the grand opening ceremony for a new hotel in 2003, I gave up my shares of the business and made a commitment to help poor people. In 2004 I began advocacy work and lobbied the government to form a nonprofit organization.”

“Being a Laotian civil society organization (CSO) is very complicated. It took me three or four years of advocacy and lobbying, but once the government saw the work we did was going to benefit the poorest people, they issued us the permit. Now, SEDA is trying to get more foreign aid to help build a strong Lao CSO focusing not only on capacity growth, but on monitoring and evaluation in order to design efficient development projects.”

“It seems that all my life, I have always been alone and have had to fight to achieve what I want. But also there is no one who would really help me achieve my goals. Now I’m involved with thousands of poor people in Laos, and I am committed to them. I hope to help them if I can. They want to improve their access to health care, education, environment, livelihood, and agricultural production and…I would like to be part of the effort to help them out.”

“My hopes and dreams have always been with the poorest people in the world and not just Laos’s victims [of poverty]. I know what it is like to be a poor person who is suffering from a lack of education who, no matter how they struggle to achieve in life has no support to guide them towards their goals. [If we don’t solve the problem] this will lead to an increase in the population that lives below the poverty line in the next generation. It is just like a chain of life that must stay connected. If we all help each other out, this chain of life can’t break apart.”

CH. 1: MANDARIN | CANTONESE

CH. 2: VIETNAMESE | BURMESE | KOREAN

CH. 3: KHMER | LAO | UYGHUR

CH. 4: TIBETAN

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