Kathy Khamphouy: A voice for Southeast Asian refugees
By Laura Salinger
Kathy Khamphouy is a familiar face at United Asian Services of Wisconsin (formerly United
Refugee Services of Wisconsin) where she "technically" heads up job training and employment
counseling. In reality, however, she helps new refugees tackle all of the seemingly insurmountable
challenges they face when they first arrive in Dane County. For 22 years, Khamphouy has worked at
United Asian Services, helping people face the same challenges she did when she first arrived as a
refugee to the United States.
Born in Laos, Khamphouy remembers her early childhood fondly. Her parents were business
owners — her mother owned a coffee shop and her dad owned a lumber mill — and the family was
thriving in their village on Khong Island.
"In Laos, we had a very easy life," Khamphouy recalled. "We went to school and basically did what
That would all change when communist Pathet Lao once again regained control of the
embattled country and began a vicious campaign against Lao's Hmong population and other
"After the new government took over, our life became very difficult," Khamphouy said. "They took
all of our money. We were scared all the time. We had few choices. Either you just disappeared in
the night or got killed, or you were poor and did whatever they told you to do."
Like many other people from Laos, Khamphouy's family was eventually forced to make the
treacherous trek across the Mekong River to escape into Thailand. It was a matter of self-preservation. The family of 10 left two to three at a time,
seeking safety across the border. Only 15 years old at the time, Khamphouy remembers leaving in the dead of night. Throughout the journey, her
head swam with the stories she had heard of dead bodies floating in the Mekong.
The family members all made it to Thailand where they sought refuge at the Nong Khai refugee camp. Khamphouy lived in a one-room
bamboo hut with over 20 other people. She described the living conditions as deplorable.
"We couldn't ever leave the camp and we got very little food," she said. "The sanitation at the camp was very, very bad."
After a year at Nong Khai, Khamphouy and her family were allowed entry into the U.S. They arrived in Iowa in the dead of winter.
"I still remember very clearly, my mother asked me why they put white powder all over the ground," she said with a chuckle.
With no English-language skills nor knowledge of the American culture, Khamphouy struggled to make a life in the United States. Her brother
encouraged her to enroll in the Denison Job Corps program. Khamphouy dived head first into the program, despite few English skills, and
emerged 18 months later with a CNA (Certified Nursing Assistant) certificate. She worked at a nursing home in Des Moines before joining her
parents and brother, who had all moved to Madison.
Soon after arriving in Madison, Khamphouy applied for a position as an outreach worker at the then United Refugee Services of Wisconsin.
Both she and her future husband were applicants. She beat him out of the job, but the two formed a connection. They shared a common vision.
Khamphouy's husband was a leader in the Hmong community in Janesville at the time and he helped new refugees settle in their new home.
They both wanted to help others deal with the same challenges they encountered as refugees.
"When I came to this country I had no help (from agencies)," Khamphouy recalled.
So Khamphouy has made it her goal and her career to help others. When she started at United Refugee Services of Wisconsin as an outreach
worker, she mainly helped with translation and cultural outreach. Now, she does whatever it takes to help new refugees.
"I have worn a lot of different hats at United Asian Services," Khamphouy said. "We help refugees with a number of things. We help them apply for
Social Security numbers. We help them with housing and we help them access a doctor. We help them get furniture and more. We basically help
them with everything. We hold their hands."
Khamphouy also gives one-on-one counseling in job-skills training, interview training, and other employment-related training with the goal of
giving new refugees the tools they need to become self-sufficient and succeed in their new environment.
Asian refugees of Lao, Hmong, and Cambodian descent founded United Asian Services of Wisconsin in 1984 in order to assist refugees as they
resettle in Wisconsin. They help with a gamut of resettlement issues including housing, education, health care, employment, and language.
Today, they still provide these services, but armed with their new name change, they have also branched out with the goal of becoming a
resource center of sorts for the diverse Asian community in Dane County.
Aside from her work at United Asian Services, Khamphouy continues to work as a nursing assistant for Care Wisconsin. She spends nearly 20
hours a week visiting and caring for older individuals in their homes. She also helps care for her father, now 97 years old, as he battles cancer.
She is the proud mother of two college students and a 9-year-old. Her husband is a bilingual resource specialist for the Madison Metropolitan
When asked about the changes she would like to see in the community, she stressed the importance of helping Dane County children and
adolescents succeed in school and in their community. She has witnessed many children, often whose parents have a limited education, fall
through the cracks.
"I would really like our community to do more for our teenagers and our children," she said.
Laura Salinger is a
freelance writer based
Kathy Khamphouy (l) with her father
at an event of United Asian Services