By C.J. Barbre

The highlanders of Laos were recruited in the 1960s to help gather intelligence and cut off North Vietnamese forces along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

The Hmong and other highlander peoples in Laos, including the Mien, fought as guerrillas in the "Secret War" in the U.S. war effort in Laos.

Koysio Lee was born into the Lue tribe in Laos in 1969. Her father had been fighting in the war, had been home for a short visit nine months before, and was at that time a prisoner of war in Burma.

Koysio's mother already had three young children. Survival was precarious. Her friend with whom she had gone to school, was a member of the Mien tribe. She had no children. Koysio's mother gave her five-day-old daughter to her Mien friend, or adopted her out as Koysio calls it. But her Mien mom would take her to visit her Lue mother or birth mother on occasion.

It was 1973-74. The war in Laos was hot and heavy. The country would fall to the communists in 1975. It was time to get out of the country if possible. Koysio crossed the Mekong River into Thailand with her Mien family. Her birth mother believed she had been killed crossing the river and searched for her body many days.

Sammy Lee, Koysio's husband, came to America in 1981, to Riverside County. He said in 1982 the Laotian immigrants or the Hmong people as they are collectively known here, all moved to Visalia. "My wife moved here in October of 1982," he said, seated on a straw or woven stool in the living room of his Exeter home. Koysio's Mien mother lives with them.

"We met here," Sammy said about his wife. At the time he was just out of college and looking for work. He would find it, but not here. Instead he traveled with his new wife to Seattle, where they stayed for 10 years, before returning to the Valley. Sammy is a real estate investor. Koysio has decided to be a strawberry farmer and is planting her first strawberry field. She said she wanted to give it a try. "I am the first generation that never worked at farming," she said. They are also very involved with their church, Parkside Chapel in Visalia.

In fact it was the church's missionary outreach that had the couple traveling to Thailand. "The whole thing started with the ladies' group with the church." Sammy said. The first time the couple went back to Thailand was 1998. "I realized there was a lot of suffering. I can't save the world, but I wanted to do something. There were a lot of elderly people and children. All of the young people moved to the cities for work." They went back again in 1999, helped start a church and started bringing back intricate sewing crafts called pa dau, to sell for the people in this Thai village to earn money.

In 2001, the Lees had made plane reservations to go back to Thailand in September. Then the terrorists attacked the World Trade Center. The Lees did not cancel their reservations and found themselves on a virtually empty plane to Thailand. Once there Koysio set about working with a group of about 25 women in the village.

"Normally I start my day early," Sammy said. "I read my Bible and pray. I found myself with nothing to do for a couple of days so I say, 'Lord, give me something to do.' I decide the next day to start looking for my wife's parents." Sammy said he had no papers or visa to get into Laos, "just hope, ego and courage." He said the next morning at 6 a.m. he set off with only the names of Koysio's mother and grandfather. He crossed the Mekong River into Laos and asked the authorities if he needed any documentation. They said not as long as he was just a day visitor with no plans to stay overnight. Sammy went into the first restaurant he came to and asked the waitress if she knew the people he was looking for. She gave him the name of a village. Sammy went to the village and asked the first elderly lady he saw who referred him to another person. The fourth person he talked to said Koysio's mother lived in a village very far away, a seven-hour trip on the Mekong River and only one boat a day traveled there and it had already left.

Unable to stay overnight, Sammy said he kept thinking there must be a way. He was so close. It turned out that he could rent a "James Bond"

type speed boat to fly the 120 miles up the swift, dangerous, rocky river at 40 to 45 mph, and make the trip in three hours, plus three to get back. The cost was $5,000 Laotian or $125 U.S. Koysio's parents lived right at the border of China and Laos at the edge of the Golden Triangle.

Sammy arrived at the village at 4 p.m. leaving an estimated 15 minutes to see Koysio's mother before he would have to start back. Some people lead him to the house. He is fluent in their language. He sees a woman and instantly recognizes his mother-in-law because of her likeness to his wife. Sammy said his Western dress made him stand out in this mountain community with zero modern conveniences; no plumbing, electricity, automobiles, etc. although they were not strangers to cameras.

Sammy speaks clipped English and the story is better the way he tells it.

"I start to ask some questions. She say 'They die when cross Mekong River.' She walked shore, try to find body. Get emotional, start to cry. We talk 10 minutes, whole village coming. I see 40 people in the little house. At time I leave, still didn't say from U.S. Say, 'Your daughter still alive, in Thailand.' Say, 'Don't have time. Have to go back.' She ask a lot of question. Say 'I'm your son-in-law.' She shocked. I say, 'Can I have some picture?' She say, 'You have sister-in-law in Thailand, in same city, but no have address. Take picture. Have phone number.'

<$>Sammy left the village with photos of Koysio's family, a phone number of a sister-in-law, and got back to Thailand at 9 p.m.

Here Koysio says, "I was afraid. I thought he was captured by the communists."

"I was so excited, I told her 'I found your mom. I found your mom," Sammy says with animation.

"I don't believe him," Koysio says.

"So I pick up the cell phone and call her sister," Sammy responds. "I say, 'I'm your brother-in-law.'"

The sister thinks it's a ruse. She tells Sammy her sister is dead and hangs up on him. He calls again but she won't pick up the phone. So Sammy and Koysio go to town, a big city full of tourists in the Golden Triangle. They go to the market place. The fourth person he speaks to shows them were the house is. They go to the house but Koysio stays in the car while Sammy goes to knock on the door. The sister answers, and Sammy says, "turns complete pale. I say, 'don't be afraid. I'm your brother-in-law. This is your real sister. I went to see your parents today'" He hands her the family photos he got from Koysio's mother.

Needless to say they had a wonderful evening of sharing, but the sister was so rattled she forgot to cook rice with the meal, which Sammy found humorous. He said after dinner he thought about it and decided the thing to do would be to bring Koysio's mother and father and the rest of the family to Thailand to live by this daughter. In all, Koysio's parents had 12 children, 10 girls and two boys. Nine are still living. Of course, there were now grandchildren as well. This accounted for the 40 people in the small house.

The next day they rented the speed boat again, Sammy taking Koysio with him.

"It was so scary I was crying," Koysio said. But they made it to the house and had a three-hour visit.

The parents said, in essence, that they had been in this village for generations, back 300 years according to oral history, and didn't want to change, didn't want a new house that would make their neighbors jealous.

Koysio didn't speak their dialect, but Sammy did, so acted as interpreter. He said Koysio's mother apologized for having to give her away.

"I say I understand. Hard to have a lot of children. No way I be angry. Wouldn't come all this way. Still love her," Koysio said.

Because of 9/11, there were numerous delays on the reservations to return to the states. They had several opportunities to visit with Koysio's parents. Her dad never got to see her after she was born. "He really shocked. Tell my husband he not good dad, not real gentleman. Never see me till now," Koysio said. Any wounds were healed. There was redemption all around.

Koysio said she had asked her pastor in Seattle if he thought God would ever answer her prayer that some day she might find her parents. "He say one of these days will find. I think maybe just forget it, then pray again. Thank the Lord that my husband have the guts. Not safe to go without papers. God answer my prayer."

Sammy said he understood Koysio's parents not wanting to move. "Think wise choice."

They do send them money Koysio said.

"Very dangerous to go there. Couldn't believe I did that. Think without God, couldn't make it. He did really give me something to do. Greatest thing that happen. Amazing how could happen in just one day. Not just like from here to Fresno. Beyond reality. Very sure God is awesome," Sammy said with a big smile.

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