From one hell to another

Family fled Laos to live in miserable conditions here


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The organizer of a national conference on refugees in Winnipeg knows her subject too well.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/05/2016 (2573 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The organizer of a national conference on refugees in Winnipeg knows her subject too well.

As a child, Stephanie Phetsamay Stobbe and her family fled Laos and ended up in rural Manitoba in the dead of winter in a three-room house with no running water and a wood stove for heat.

“We had a terrible experience,” said Stobbe, who was seven in December 1979, when her family arrived in a southern Manitoba town she declined to identify. Their situation that winter was more perilous than the refugee camp they’d left, but it made her stronger and set her on a career path.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Stephanie Phetsamay Stobbe (right) with her mother, Pinkham Sharp. Their family fled Laos and spent a frigid winter in rural Manitoba in 1979.

“My experience and my family’s experience has led me to the field of study and area I am teaching in,” said the professor at Menno Simons College at the University of Winnipeg. It’s hosting the Canadian Association for Refugee and Forced Migration Studies conference today through Saturday. Exhibits for the public include a Doctors Without Borders refugee camp hospital set up in front of the University of Winnipeg.

“There must be a better way to address conflicts than war or violence,” said Stobbe, whose mother, Pinkham Sharp, is taking part in a panel discussion on the resettlement and integration of refugees in Canada.

Stobbe and her mom know first-hand what it’s like to experience forced migration.

“We had a traumatic escape across the Mekong River,” Stobbe said. “We were fearing soldiers on both sides of the river — ‘Are they going to shoot us?’ Somehow we made it across.” They made it to a refugee camp, then to Canada, where her family was privately sponsored through a church, she said.

“The priest said five families sponsored us, but we never met them,” said Stobbe. “They didn’t really take care of us as promised for one year.”

There were four kids in her family, ranging in age from one to eight. They spoke no English and faced their first winter in Canada living like pioneers.

“Dad had to walk a mile to a well in the middle of winter,” she said. “We had no gas or hydro — just a wood-burning stove. Dad had to chop wood and throw it in the stove.”

She remembers being scared to go to the bathroom, a biffy next to the church cemetery.

“We had an outhouse close to grave stones,” she said.

“It was a big culture shock… As children, we adjusted better than our parents. I think our parents had a much more difficult time. We learned the language much faster.”

“Mom was sent to work one week after we arrived in a sewing factory. The younger children were sent to daycare.”

They got through that first winter thanks to some “wonderful neighbours.” Stobbe remembers her family being invited to a neighbour’s house to take a bath, and another neighbour who helped with their laundry.

“One family took our clothes once a week to wash at her house,” she said.

Her mom got her hands on a Thai-English dictionary and made contact with the Lao Association in Winnipeg. Two volunteers came to visit and acted as their interpreters. “They communicated with the priest and said this is not acceptable,” Stobbe said. “They told the sponsor we can’t live in these conditions… We’re supposed to be living in conditions that are better than the refugee camp.”

They were moved to Steinbach. A teacher took the family under her wing, and Stobbe’s mom took English language classes.

“There are amazing people in Canada who want to help refugees, who are compassionate and willing to extend their homes and friendship to us,” she said.

In 1986, Stobbe’s family moved to Vancouver. She moved back to Manitoba in 1996 for post-graduate study and was offered a job at Menno Simons College in 1999.

Stobbe and her three siblings all went to college and university.

“We’ve done quite well and now are making a contribution back to Canada,” she said.

Hers is looking for solutions to the world refugee crisis.


Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders
Legislature reporter

After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.


Updated on Wednesday, May 11, 2016 7:35 AM CDT: Adds photo

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