Voeung Keo holds her youngest child, Ravinn, who was born May 22, 1982, six weeks after their arrival in Springfield. CONTRIBUTED

Commentary: Springfield sponsors anticipate reunion with immigrant family

First of a two-part column

Tears deliver messages from a place beyond words.

And those shed since last spring in Whitehall, Mich., Seattle and Springfield have spoken to a distance beyond measure - the distance between an abrupt severing of close relations and, once the hurt had dulled, a reunion longingly hoped for after two years grew to five, then 10 and stretched to 20 and, ultimately 34 years before the hope was realized.

Because they involve the last family mentioned on the final paragraph of Newsweek’s Spring 1983 issue focused on Springfield, those tears are part of the continuing story of immigrant families and the “American Dream” that was the focus of the magazine’s special 50th anniversary celebration.

Now pastor of Lebanon Lutheran Church, in Whitehall, Mich., on the Lake Michigan shore, Doug Ogden grew up just outside Springfield and was a senior at Wittenberg University in 1981-2 when the Weaver Chapel Association decided to sponsor a refugee family from Southeast Asia.

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“It had to have been Michael Wuchter’s idea,” Ogden said.

The late Wuchter was university pastor in what Ogden calls that “much more globally minded time.”

Working with Lutheran Immigration and Naturalization Services, the Weaver Chapel Association’s initial intention was to sponsor a family from Vietnam. But a Cambodian refugee Ogden recalls who had been sponsored by another Springfield church came forward asking that the students sponsor his sister’s family, then stranded in the Khao-I-Dang refugee camp in Thailand.

Once bulging with refugees, the camp later would be the location of the final scene of “The Killing Fields,” a biography and documentary about the extermination of an estimated one million people by the Khmer Rouge after the Vietnam War. Many of the doomed spent time in that camp.

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“I remember Michael coming in with the dossier and papers” on the Keo family, Ogden recalled, a dossier that included a family photo.

As the chapel association moved toward a decision to sponsor the family, Wittenberg staff and students donated clothing, furniture and household goods, and, in the early days of recycling, the chapel association tapped into a ready source of campus cash: beer cans eagerly donated by students who no longer had use for them. Ogden remembers having to explain himself to a group of parents who saw him hauling a large bag of cans from a chapel office beside the altar.

Students also found a ready source of support in the social ministry committees of local churches, among them First Lutheran and Ogden’s home church, Rockway Lutheran. His late father, Milton, and mother, Martha, also a Wittenberg graduate, members of the church, “had a real affinity for kids,” Ogden said. Then Rockway pastor, the late Fred Otto, also was encouraging because of his involvement in international aid and resettlement efforts of German Lutherans after World War II and the erection of the Berlin Wall.

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Months of meetings and groundwork led up to what Newsweek ‘s American Dream issue called “a rainy night in April (1982)” when “Chandara Keo, 27, and his pregnant wife, Voeung Ya Keo, 32, arrived in the city with their four small children and not much except the clothes on their backs.

“Their sponsors found them a house near the campus at a bargain rent, scavenged up used clothing and a second-hand TV to help them learn English, and arranged instruction for Chandara and Voeung in the mysteries of the language and the currency.

“Chandara found work as a gardener at the university at $3.35 an hour. It was only the minimum wage, but it was a beginning.”

A time of bonding

The day after the Keos landed at Dayton International Airport, Doug Ogden picked up Sithan and Sitha, the two older boys, from a house on the 200 block of W. Cecil Street and took them to his parent’s home west of town for a visit. A photo from that day shows both boys wearing red-and-white striped shirts and broad smiles.

Although long prepared for, the Keos’ arrival came with a surprise, Mrs. Ogden recalled.

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“We didn’t learn until about the time they were going to arrive that Voeung was seven-and-a-half months pregnant, at least.” West Cecil Street neighbor Tom Kaiser drove her to the hospital for the birth of Ravinn, a fifth child, on May 22, 1982.

By then, the Ogdens knew the Keos’ back story.

Voeung (the mother) had fled Cambodia on foot with four children in tow over a treacherous mountain path into Thailand. For Doug Ogden, the trek brought to mind Springfield’s Madonna of the Trail statue that depicts a pioneer woman carrying a gun and cradling a baby in her left arm while an older child clings to her skirts.

“She stands less than five feet, (but) is one of the strongest women I knew,” Mrs. Ogden said. “This woman kept her four children together (after) her husband was killed.”

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Arriving in the Khao-I-Dang camp as Voeung Yin, she met and married Chandara Keo, who goes by Dara. He had traveled the same trail, on which he saw a fellow refugee’s hat fly into the air after he stepped on a landmine.

As she listened to their stories, Mrs. Ogden began to have experiences with the family that she would treasure over the 34 years they were absent from her life.

“Extrala”: Because of a language barrier, it took Mrs. Ogden a few moments to realize small, slender Dara was trying to say the donated shirts he sorted through were far too big from him —“extra-large.”

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Missus: When Mrs. Keo needed to go shopping, she would call Mrs. Ogden on the phone and say “Missus, are you busy?” That outing sometimes meant a visit to Sarah Tyree in the Weaver Chapel offices to tap into a food fund established for the family. For his part, Rockway member Bob Grube bought rice for the family at a discount price at an Asian grocery in Fairborn.

Found in translation: “Sometimes if we were in the grocery store with the children and the mother would want a particular item in the produce section,” Mrs. Ogden said. “I would ask one of the children to translate that into English.” On this trip 3-year-old Rathi, the second-to-youngest child was unable to translate the item. “This darling child. He looked at me, and he pointed. It was a cucumber.”

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She fondly remembers taking the children to the slide next to the Cinderella pumpkin in then Cliff Park; holding the third-born boy, Rathi, on her hip during a performance of the Royal Lichtenstein Circus on the Wittenberg campus; traveling with the boys to the Ohio River at Manchester for camping and boating with her late husband; and periodically driving the lone daughter, Ravynna, to Snowhill School.

“I won’t say I had favorites,” she said, ” but Ravy and I had gotten pretty close to one another.”

She also recalls that the second boy, Satah, called her “grandma” though she quickly adds, “I was only in my 40s.”

Over the course of two years, the Ogdens had grown a familial bond with the Keos when the latter abruptly departed in June of 1984.

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Mrs. Keo’s brother, who had urged the Wittenberg community to sponsor the family “was trying to talk them into moving out to Seattle, where he lived, but we didn’t know it,” Doug Ogden said. “We knew (the talk) was kind of under their breath.”

The suddenness of it all took the Ogdens’ breath away.

By then attending seminary in Philadelphia, Doug had been busy with his new pursuits, and Wuchter had been away pursuing a Ph.D. at Princeton.

But as he stood in the middle of Cecil Street watching them drive away, Doug Ogden said he had the feeling “they were sailing off into the unknown, and we didn’t know if they would be alright. We had formed this association, and then they were gone.”

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Having formed a deeper relationship with the family, his parents, too, felt as if they’d turned their heads for a moment and the children they’d doted on were gone.

“It seems to me Milton and I had been on vacation shortly before they made the decision to move,” Mrs. Ogden said. “I didn’t know what to think. We didn’t know where they’d be living. The only contact I had was an address for her brother.”

In the aftermath, she found herself saying words so commonly spoken in times of hurt: “Well, life goes on.”

Next week: Life didn’t go on as well for the Keos, who are still dealing with consequences of the move. But with persistence rooted in their two-years connection, the families would come together, albeit in a new century.

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