Making HerStory

Panghoua Moua: Keeping Dreams Alive

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.”

Traditional Hmong clothing made by Panghoua

Traditional Hmong clothing made by Panghoua

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. img_3733

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.


Panghoua and Koua after his release. (Pioneer Press: Ben Garvin)

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.”img_3731

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.”

img_3728She 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.


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  • Trudy Baltazar
    November 16, 2016 at 6:38 am

    Oh Panghoua this story is so beautiful. I don’t know how you did it all those months and never missed a day of college while Koua was in prison. You are an amazing woman. I am so glad to see your story. I am thankful for Innocence Project of MN and for all the attorneys did to reunite your family. May God bless you all. You and Koua have a very strong spirit and you are each a perfect example of how not to let what’s happening destroy you and your dreams. People have much to learn from you both. Your family is a blessing to the community.

    • Laura and Melessa
      November 16, 2016 at 10:00 pm

      Trudy, thank you so much for sharing. They are such great examples to the world. And I love how they have both focused their careers on helping others!

  • Amy
    November 16, 2016 at 7:18 am

    Panghoua, i drove by your old house this morning when I dropped off my kids, a wave of memories flooded my mind. It brought me back when you arrive at the doors of our school, and when you came to my class, it didn’t take me long II just love you so deeply. And then I remember the day that you came into my class early in the morning before anyone was there and that was the day that changed everything. You have changed my life in inexplicable ways, and you are a constant reminder of what a strong woman really is. Your perseverance and dedication to your family is unwavering. In the light of recent election results, for anyone that just can’t understand the gifts that immigrants and refugees bring to our country, I turn to you as proof enough. When we look at the people in our lives who are heroes, I do not need to look far. You have inspired me in so many ways. I love you. Amy Hewett-Olatunde

    • Laura and Melessa
      November 16, 2016 at 9:56 pm

      Amy, thank you so much for sharing such a beautiful message. I was just talking with a friend tonight about the topic of immigration, and how important it is for everyone to understand the individuals behind any label before making sweeping judgments.

  • Leann
    November 16, 2016 at 7:23 am

    This is such an amazing story! Never give up, hang on to your dreams, focuss on the positive… wow!! What an example for all of us. Thank you for being willing to share this story!

  • Abbey Phipps
    November 16, 2016 at 9:14 am

    Oh my goodness, what a story! This is just beautiful! Her determination is absolutely inspirational!

    • Laura and Melessa
      November 16, 2016 at 9:53 pm

      It really is, Abbey! And she and her husband are both so incredibly kind and humble. Their grace after such an ordeal puts things in perspective for me.

  • Anonymous
    November 16, 2016 at 11:22 am

    Panghoua is one of the strongest, most determined, positive, beautiful people I have ever had the privilege of knowing. She is a role model for all, and my personal hero.

    • Laura and Melessa
      November 16, 2016 at 11:24 am

      Thank you so much for sharing. Her strength and positivity are amazing!

  • janahogan
    November 16, 2016 at 11:57 am

    The patience and grace this family exemplify are an inspiration to me. My heart breaks to hear of the pain they endured and how they will forever be changed by what happened. I am grateful to know there is a God who makes unfair situations like this one all make sense in the end. Otherwise, the injustice would be too much to bear.

    • Laura and Melessa
      November 16, 2016 at 9:52 pm

      Thank you, Jana, for putting my thoughts into words.

  • Kong Chee Vang
    November 17, 2016 at 5:59 am

    Panghoua, you’re an amazing woman, being that we are family. All of those difficult days are behind us, seeing how you struggle with emotions regarding the accident, the lives that were lost , as well as the survivors. Our prayers for them asking God to heal what we can’t. everyday was a struggle for you… for the first time in your life, you found yourself to be a single mom. The hardest part was, having to raise your children by yourself.

    I am so proud of you as each day would passed, your hope for a better day would come knowing that it’s a day closer to having Koua home again. As hard as it was for you, you strike for excellent and maintained your GPA at school and above all, the most important part was to maintain the support needed between you and Koua while he was away. You two were amazing.

    You’re an awesome role model to many. I still remember our painful talks like yesterday and how you would arrive at my door steps seeking help with Koua’s case. Giving and fighting with all of your strength. While trying to stay positive for the children at the same time. There are days when we struggle with tears. You’ve given me the strength to fight for what is right. Every time when I read an article about you and brother Koua, it brings back a wave of painful memories, but at the same moment I am happy to see how far you two have come, slowly but surly it will get better with each sun rise.

    Stay focus and never lost sight of where you have been and who you are. Live your life to the fullest! Live life as it it is your last second, in the present, not yesterday and certainly not tomorrow, as it is promised to anyone.

    When I look at you and Koua, I am reminded everyday, as to how we can overcome adversity. I have always believe that we can thrive anywhere when our determination are for the betterment of our life and our children. Simply because our “why” are in greater need at a given moment. Stay humble and continue to give back to the community.

  • Joan Treppa
    November 29, 2016 at 4:31 pm

    I’ve had the privilege of getting to know this beautiful family. They never deserved any of the pain and anguish forced upon them due to that fatal accident. It pains me to know that many others suffer the same injustices as they through false and erroneous accusations. This is my gift to you Panghoua and Koua…

    • Laura and Melessa
      November 29, 2016 at 6:06 pm

      Thank you so much for sharing this, Joan!

  • Thank You, Thank You! – My Daily She
    September 5, 2017 at 5:01 am

    […] Panghoua Moua – Wife, Mother and Survivor […]

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