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As a Refugee I Am Grateful for the Opportunities in DSM USA

DSM USA Gave Me Opportunity

May 10, 2018

Although I grew up in the U.S. for a majority of my life, I still had obstacles to overcome when adjusting to American culture. Now, I am a successful businesswoman who utilizes my fluency in multiple languages to give back to the community in Greater Des Moines (DSM).

Leaving Laos

Refugee in Greater Des Moines (DSM)I am originally from Laos but am a quarter Thai on my mother’s side. Because of the Laotian Civil War, my family escaped in 1981. My father was in the Laotian army, making him a prime target for execution. He swam across the Mekong River to escape into Thailand to avoid being found. Once he knew it was safe, he came back for my family. We reunited and crossed back into Thailand to live in a refugee camp.

Life as a refugee

Refugees were not allowed to leave the camp and work was very restricted. My parents had to find their own means to buy the essentials. My father would climb under the fence to carry rice bags from one town to another only earning 20 baht (10 cents back then) and my mother would do laundry to earn money. After living in the refugee camp for three years, we snuck onto a boat to go to the Philippines where we stayed for six months.

American lifeline

Finally, in October of 1984, we were sponsored by a church in California to come to the U.S. We were flown into Fresno, California, where we lived for about a year. My mother reconnected with her side of the family that lived in DSM and we took a Greyhound bus from California to Iowa in December 1986. We arrived with no winter clothes and had never seen snow before, which was quite a surprise for us!

Overcoming obstacles

Opportunities for refugee in Greater Des Moines (DSM)At the age of 18, I became pregnant with my oldest son, Leon. In order to care for him, I dropped out of high school with only a couple months left until graduation. I had always been a straight A student, so this was very hard for me. As soon as I had my son, I obtained my GED and continued on to Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC). As a single mom, I had many obstacles that I had to overcome. Without the financial support from anyone, I knew it was my full responsibility to provide for my son. I started working full time at Norwest Bank (now known as Wells Fargo) in 1999, while attending DMACC full time. 

I married my husband, Jimmy, in June 2001 and gave birth to three more boys.

After transfers to Florida and Sioux City, Iowa with Wells Fargo, I decided to relocate with my husband to work and then manage the Chinese Deli for a Missouri Hy-Vee. Although I had never cooked on a wok or managed a department, I was very successful in my position breaking a 20-year-old sales record. 

Moving back to DSM

Opportunities for refugee in Greater Des Moines (DSM)My husband and I moved back to DSM in 2011. I felt that something was calling me home. Finding a career in DSM didn’t take long. I was soon given an opportunity to join World Financial Group (WFG), where I am now an independent agent serving the entire state. My ability to speak three languages (English, Thai and Laotian) bridges the gap between myself and my clients.

I am very grateful for the opportunities DSM has provided so I give back to my community when I can. I was the Volunteering Chair for the past two years with CelebrAsian and am serving as Village Chair this year. I’m also involved with several other nonprofit organizations.

I came to DSM as a refugee and worked hard to become fluent in English. As a child and to this day, I consider the U.S. as my own country. DSM has given opportunity to me and my family and for that, I’m very grateful.

Through the Global DSM initiative, the Greater Des Moines Partnership works to establish Greater Des Moines (DSM) as a global community by bolstering global trade and foreign investments and leveraging international talent. Check out resources for foreign-born talent and more Global DSM stories.

Lisa Ung

Lisa Ung, married to Jimmy Ung, has four handsome boys. Besides being a senior marketing director at World Financial Group and keeping busy with running her office, Ung loves to cook, eat and volunteer her time at multiple organizations. Ung is passionate about helping people both in her professional career and her personal life.