When Kim Laaw sets out today on a mission of mercy, she'll fly far into the unknown.
"I have to file one more form," said Laaw, who is on her way back to her homeland of Laos in Southeast Asia.
The form is for the "humanitarian parole" of her 8-year-old niece, VailPeaun, who could not otherwise leave Laos and come to America, even temporarily. Humanitarian parole is for urgent cases, and Laaw said VailPeaun is certainly that. She was born with two holes in her heart in a country where no pediatrician is accessible.
Laaw, who has not been back to Laos since she fled its communist regime in 1977, has saved the money for her own passage. She has a U.S. passport and a plane ticket with an 8 a.m. departure today from Salt Lake City. But once she lands in the Laotian capital city of Vientiane, much of the future will dissolve into uncertainty.
Laaw, her niece and her niece's mother, Koe, must first travel across the border to Thailand. There, they will meet with the Thai doctor who has examined VailPeaun and collect her file of medical records.
From there, Laaw will try to arrange for their trip together to the United States. Laaw doesn't yet know whether her applications for humanitarian parole will be approved; nor does she know how much the airfare for Koe and VailPeaun will be. Still, she is intent on returning with them to Utah on Oct. 26.
"My mother had 15 children. I am the oldest," said Laaw, who feels responsible for her siblings — and for their children.
Laaw was married to another Laotian refugee when she first came to West Valley City in 1980, but her husband's struggle with compulsive gambling precipitated their divorce seven years later. Laaw then found a job at Dunford Bakers in West Jordan and worked extra shifts there so she could move her children into a new house nearby. Her two sons and two daughters are grown now; Laaw says Utah has been a good place to raise them.
Sitting in her carpeted living room, surrounded by silk-flower bouquets and photos of her extended family, Laaw seems improbably calm when talking about her trip across two continents and an ocean. Her tone is matter-of-fact when she says she hasn't seen her sister in 26 yearsand that they have spoken only on the rare occasions when Koe has gone to Thailand and purchased a phone card.
Koe's family has no phone of their own and no address, Laaw says.
"They live in a grass hut. And there are no access roads, only the Mekong River. Their village is 700 kilometers from the capital city," so Laaw will have to take a taxi as far as the road goes, then walk about 15 miles.
"I've got to get myself in shape, jogging," she said, smiling a little.
If Laaw is able to bring her sister and niece back with her next month, she plans to take VailPeaun to Primary Children's Medical Center for evaluation. She'll need to have her medical file translated into English, and she'll have to figure out how to pay for the girl's treatment and possible surgery. Primary Children's can afford to take only a handful of international charity cases each year, according to hospital spokesperson Bonnie Midget.
"If they turn me down, I'll go to Oprah Winfrey," vowed Laaw, who didn't appear to be joking.
In August, Laaw put out a tip jar at Dunford Bakers and has since collected some $700 in donations toward VailPeaun's travel and medical costs. The bakery's customers, and members of the Copper Hills 10th LDS ward to which Laaw belongs, have taken an interest in her plight. Yet there are still thousands of dollars to raise.
Then came a setback. Except Laaw doesn't see it as such.
Last week, Laaw lost her job at Dunford, due to what she and co-owner Doug Dunford called "personal" issues unrelated to her fund-raising effort. With her trip to Laos a few days away, she's not out looking for work. Her sons, both of whom work at Karl Malone Toyota, may be able help her pay bills. But after she arrives back home in late October, Laaw will have to search for a new job. And at this point, she doesn't know where she'll begin. Instead, she is focused on her impending trip, a trip that almost retraces the one she made nearly three decades ago.