Today is World Refugee Day. To mark the day, the Herald spoke to a refugee family who escaped to New Zealand 33 years ago, risking their lives to do so.

If it wasn't for a kind policeman who took pity on the Phonevilay family, they may have been shot dead for trying to escape their country.

It was 1983 and Onsy and Sounvilay Phonevilay decided to make the difficult journey to escape the oppressive government regime in Laos with their two young children Dai, 3, and Simon, 2. Mr Phonevilay, now 65, said the family lived in fear every day in their home country. "At the time the communist party take over the country. We were scared. Anyone who was educated or stood up against the communist party was seen as a threat."

He was a deputy principal at a high school and his status was highly regarded in his community in the Laos capital of Viantiane. The family planned to make their escape through the Mekong River into Phon Phisai, Thailand. In order to do this, they had to lie. At the time, any Laotians wanting to travel to another province were required to ask for permission from the Government. "I lied and applied to go to a cousin's wedding in another province, to get closer to the Mekong River," Mr Phonevilay said.

It was a huge risk for the young family, as soldiers closely guarded both borders. If caught, there was a high chance the family would be robbed of their belongings and shot dead. Women who were caught were also often raped by soldiers or government authorities. "It was a huge risk on my parents' part to actually consider escaping as there was no guarantee you would make it," Dai, now 34, said.


At 1am, the Phonevilay family, along with another family, jumped on a small banana boat and made their way quietly to Thailand through the Mekong River. The journey would take an hour and Dai and her brother Simon were drugged so they would sleep and not make a noise. However, news got out to the Thai soldiers that the family was arriving. The Phonevilay family could have been shot dead. But in a stroke of luck, a soldier who climbed a tree to look out for the family fell and the group of soldiers rushed him to hospital, leaving the border unguarded.

"The angels ... above were looking after us," Dai said. In the morning, the family went to a police station in Thailand to be put into a refugee camp. "The police were shocked we made it," she said.

But the family hit another speed bump - all refugee camps were closed and they were told to return to Laos. But one policeman who took pity on the young family gave them tips on what bus to take to get to a camp which was open. He even gave the family money for the bus fare. "If it wasn't for him, we would be shot dead back in Laos," Mr Phonevilay said.

After a year-and-a-half in a refugee camp, the family received the news they had been sponsored by a family in New Zealand. In 1984, the Phonevilays made the move. "When we arrived in New Zealand I felt like I was born again," Mr Phonevilay said.

The family settled in Porirua and Mr Phonevilay worked in a meat packaging factory and only retired last year.

"We are so grateful for the opportunity to be able to have a new life," Dai said. "The Government has helped us really appreciate what this country has to offer and we want to help other families to give them a second chance at life."