Bulletin

An online magazine of news and opinions from the Asia New Zealand Foundation

Growing up Lao in Wainuiomata

When Samson Phommachack's parents arrived in New Zealand as refugees from Laos in 1986, the elderly couple who sponsored them gave them a book: Samson and Delilah. Four years later when the Phommachacks had a son, they had just the name for him.

Samson Phommachack and his family posing for a photo

Samson's family were among some 1,200 Lao refugees who were settled in New Zealand between 1975 and 1993 following a period of unrest in the region in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.

Arriving in Wainuiomata, the Phommachacks joined a small, close-knit Lao community for which the Buddhist temple in Stokes Valley was a focus of worship.

Samson says growing up in Wainuiomata had a “huge impact” on his life, shaping who he became. His upbringing was in many ways typically ‘kiwi’, but with a distinctly Laotian twist. 

“I spent most weekends with family (uncles, aunties, cousins) down at the Wainuiomata Coast. The adults would go diving for paua, kids fishing off the rocks and everyone picnicking on the hillside.”

Most families that moved to Wellington from Laos resided in either Porirua, Lower Hutt or Wainuiomata. His extended family and the wider Lao community played an important role in Samson’s upbringing and in helping his parents settle in to their new home.

“For my family, having a Lao community was vital; being far from home…and being in a foreign country can be isolating.

“There were a lot of gatherings where Lao families came together to eat together like they did in Laos; a lot of laughter, singing and traditional food being served.”

Now in his 20s and with degrees in both international business and tourism management, Samson is a co-founder of Wellington digital technology firm Vizbot.

After participating in the R9 Accelerator for young entrepreneurs, he and his Vizbot partners came up with the idea of developing a web platform to digitise the currently laborious off-line process of applying for local government building consents. 

Being a member of Asia New Zealand Foundation’s Leadership Network has allowed Samson to connect with young entrepreneurs from ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) countries. 

Samson finds that his experience as a Laotian New Zealander has helped him to appreciate how young ASEAN entrepreneurs approach things differently from their New Zealand counterparts

“Enterprises in New Zealand could learn a lot from ASEAN entrepreneurs’ community-centred approach to creating solutions and growing businesses.”

Samson says New Zealand could also do more to utilise the wealth of cultural knowledge and experience of its migrant communities. It is an area in which he is already playing a role.

“I am attending Festival for the Future later this year, where I hope to connect with associations and individuals from ethnic communities who migrated to New Zealand, to find out what initiatives they are leading and see what I can do to help."

Samson learned Laotian as a child and has been back to Laos four times, most recently in 2015 when he returned to his family village to become a Buddhist monk, something he describes as a ‘life-changing event’.

Samson Phommachack in Buddhist monk's robes with his uncle and cousin

“…having your son enter into temporary monkhood is a merit-gaining honour most families hope to achieve. I went into this experience wholeheartedly and did not hold back.

“It made it even more special that my grandparents made the trip back to the village with me – where I found out that my great-grandfather was a founding Monk in the village temple when it was first built.

“As I get older and think about having a family of my own, I believe it is so important to keep in touch with my heritage. There is so much I have yet to learn." 

Samson’s story is touched upon in the Foundation’s report Relations and relationships: 40 years of people movements from ASEAN countries to New Zealand by Dr Kate McMillan.

By Ned Wotherspoon

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11 September 2016