In a city as diverse as Salem, each of our stories is unique.
Even so, Xue Lor’s life, and the path he took to become a Salem resident, a father and husband, a security guard at the State Prison and candidate for Ward 6 City Council – is exceptional.
Lor was born in the highlands of Laos, in an isolated Hmong village where his family farmed off the land. His parents planted cucumbers, rice, potatoes, corn and papaya, and raised chickens, pigs and cows.
“Everything we needed to survive on,” Lor recounts now, “we grew ourselves.”
The Hmong people are an Asian ethnic group that settled in several countries, including China and Vietnam, but always remained separate and independent from the general populations. Hmong are known in the United States as collaborators, fierce fighters who helped our country during the Vietnam War because of their knowledge of the terrain and their hatred of communism. After the war ended, and communists took over the Laotian government, Hmong collaborators were singled out for retribution.
It went like that for Lor’s family.
His father, Chai Vang, helped the American Special Task force from 1968 – 1974, locating resources to stop North Vietnamese transport through Laos over the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the path the communist army used to move men, supplies and ammunition in their attempt to take over South Vietnam. Chai Vang’s arm was wounded and he lost 80% of his hearing from loading and using artillery in this effort.
When the war ended and the Americans withdrew, Lor recalls, “the general told everybody to go back home and start life over. But the communists had a different plan. They began to kill the people who supported the Americans during the war, or sent them to ‘re-education camps.’”
Lor’s father was sent to a re-education camp, a subject he still speaks little about. The prisoners were kept underground in tunnels and had “a very hard time.” Many didn’t come back to their families, but eventually Chai Vang did, and like thousands of other Hmong Laotians, he planned an escape to Thailand.
Xue Lor, only a boy of 7, remembers the escape vividly. They first made their way to Vien, the capitol city of Laos, where they hid in a building. “It was late and dark when we got there. We weren’t allowed to talk. We all huddled in one corner,” while his father negotiated crossing the river to Thailand.
When they made the crossing, “all the little kids and women were in boats, and the men used [inner tubes.] It was the middle of the night, pitch dark, and we had nothing to eat all day and all night. The couple that arranged it said, ‘go right now,’ and made us leave all our belongings. We only had the clothes on our backs.”
Lor remembers getting into the water, the moonlight on the river, being told not to talk or cry. “We were all scared,” he says, “because there were smugglers and soldiers who would kill us if they saw us.”
In Thailand, the family was sent to a refugee camp, where they spent four long years, watching new people arrive every day, eating little. “My dad was trying to make the government think he was reeducated so they wouldn’t investigate him; it all depended what the government thought. My dad believed in America, so he was fearing for his life,” Lor recalls.
Conditions were harsh; many died because there was no medical help or sanitation. “There were no facilities,” Lor says, describing open water used for both toilet and drinking water. Adults were allowed to attend a makeshift school, but children were not.
After copious paperwork, Lor and his family were sponsored by an uncle who had settled in Salem years before. They made the trip around the world. Lor entered Salem-Keizer schools, where he was educated in ESL and then general studies. He graduated from McKay High in 1989 and studied microbiology at Chemeketa Community College for one year, before he had to quit to support his family. He’s worked for the Department of Corrections as a corrections officer for the last 15 years.
Lor says he’s visited “quite a few different states, but nothing compares to Salem. I love Salem.” He likes the green, he likes the rain, he is very involved in his church, the Christian Missionary Alliance and the Hmong community in town. He and wife, Yeng Xiong see his parents, Chai Vang and Shoua Lee, frequently.
Lor “especially likes motivating youth to go to college.” He’s proud his son, Isiah, now 20, is in Chemeketa Community College’s nursing program.
“I didn’t have a childhood until I got to the United States,” Lor says, “so I’m very grateful.”