Most of Panghoua Moua’s life has been a challenge, to say the least. After growing up in Hmong refugee camps in Thailand, she and her husband thought all their problems were over when they immigrated to the United States. But just two years later, they were involved in a fatal car crash that left her husband wrongfully imprisoned for almost three years, until a judge declared their later-recalled Toyota to be at fault. Keep reading for Panghoua’s story, and how her family is rebuilding their life.
Panghoua is a dreamer. She has had to be, to escape from her reality for so much of her life. She was born in a Hmong refugee camp in Thailand in 1985, after her parents fled Laos during the Vietnam War. She is the oldest of eight children. Panghoua’s family was moved to two other camps during her childhood, and they always had their bags packed to move at a moment’s notice. She says, “It was normal for me. I lived my whole life that way.”
When Panghoua was 14 years old, she was excited to attend the Hmong New Year celebration–it was her favorite time of year, as it was the only time each year that she got new clothes. What she didn’t expect was that she would meet a boy at the celebration, Koua Fong Lee, who would become her husband just two months later. “We didn’t fall in love right away,” but once they did know, they married quickly, and immediately started dreaming of building a better life together.
Panghoua explains, “I understand that in this country, fourteen is kind of young, but I was very, very mature.” Panghoua learned how to take care of herself when she was little. She worked her entire childhood, sewing traditional Hmong clothing and decor, and helping local Thai farmers with their harvests. “Right now, I have a fourteen-year-old daughter, and she is very different than I was. But I understand that life here is different. I don’t want to compare us, because we live in a different society. I don’t want my kids to live how I used to live.”
In 2004, the United States opened the door for most of their camp to immigrate to St. Paul, Minnesota. Relatives who had come to the area in the 1970s sponsored them, enrolling Panghoua and Koua in school, where they took English as a Second Language (ESL) and other courses to help them adjust to their new homeland. They also let Panghoua’s family stay with them until they found a home in St. Paul close to the rest of their extended family. The young couple’s dreams of a country they could call their own and a real education were finally coming true!
And then the unthinkable happened.
In June 2006, just two years after their arrival from the refugee camp, Koua was driving Panghoua, their daughter, and his father and brother home from a family graduation party. As they exited the highway, Koua pressed the brake of his Toyota Camry, but it instead accelerated, crashing into a stopped car and killing three of the people in it. Panghoua remembers, “I thought we might die. I saw the car ahead of us, then turned and looked at my four-year-old and thought, ‘This might be the last time I see my daughter.’ It happened so fast. I don’t remember the impact.”
But she would never forget the impact that event had on her family. “It took away everything–our hopes and dreams–in that moment.”
Koua was convicted in 2008 and sentenced to eight years in prison. He did everything he could to support Panghoua, who was pregnant with their fourth child, while he was in prison, including encouraging her when she decided to attend college to get an accounting degree. She felt that with a degree, she could keep their dream alive. She could have her own business, and Koua could help her if he was unable to get a good job later.
She was also grateful to have an amazing support system help her through that time. Her relatives helped with the legal process of the first trial, and Panghoua turned to her ESL teacher for emotional support while her husband was away. They are still very good friends.
When asked what gave her strength at that time, Panghoua quickly replies:
I had Jemee [their oldest daughter] in the refugee camp, and I wanted her to have a different life. When we learned that we had the opportunity to come to this country, go to school, and support our kids, I knew that was the future I wanted for her….When he was in prison, I knew I had to keep that dream alive. It was hard to be positive, but I could not just give up. I needed to be there for my kids. I needed to be there for him.”
The couple talked on the phone every day while he was in prison. One night, Koua called home and told Panghoua that someone had told him of a Toyota recall due to unintended acceleration. She recalls, “I searched online and found a family who’d had the same thing happen to them, and I just started crying.”
When Panghoua told Koua’s cousin about other similar cases with Toyotas, he contacted an attorney in St. Paul, who also received help from a Texas attorney and the Minnesota Innocence Project, which works to free people who are wrongfully imprisoned. After spending almost three years in prison, Koua was granted a retrial. The prosecutor decided to drop the case. Koua was released, and his criminal charge was erased.
Although Panghoua was overjoyed to have her husband home, the transition was far from easy. When he first came home, they both met with a psychiatrist and took prescription medications to sleep because they couldn’t stop thinking about the accident. Panghoua also saw a counselor while Koua was in prison and after his release to deal with depression.
The younger children didn’t know who he was at first, and Koua worked very hard to get to know them. Panghoua admits, “I still have not talked openly with my kids about what happened. I want them to be able to understand. It changed our life, and the life of the other family…I think Jemee knows what happened, but she doesn’t want to talk about it.”
Despite those challenges, her relationship with her husband is stronger than ever. Panghoua says, “I talk to him about everything. We appreciate each other more every day because you don’t know what tomorrow will bring you.” She admits that their relationship is different than before, but they trust each other and communicate. “We try to work very hard to keep our dream alive and have a good future and support our community.”
She advises anyone whose loved one is struggling, “Never give up. Be there for them, and think about the good things.” She also emphasizes what a gift today is. Anything could happen, but we don’t need to live in fear.