A massive Powerball win draws attention to a little-known immigrant culture in the US

Apr 29, 2024, 9:13 PM

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Cheng “Charlie” Saephan wore a broad smile and a bright blue sash emblazoned with the words “Iu-Mien USA” as he hoisted an oversized check for $1.3 billion above his head.

The 46-year-old immigrant’s luck in winning an enormous Powerball jackpot in Oregon earlier this month — a lump sum payment of $422 million after taxes, which he and his wife will split with a friend — has changed his life. It also raised awareness about Iu Mien people, a southeast Asian ethnic group with origins in China, many of whose members fled from Laos to Thailand and then settled in the U.S. following the Vietnam War.

“I am born in Laos, but I am not Laotian,” Saephan told a news conference Monday at Oregon Lottery headquarters, where his identity as one of the jackpot’s winners was revealed. “I am Iu Mien.”

During the Vietnam War, the CIA and U.S. military recruited Iu Mien in neighboring Laos, many of them subsistence farmers, to engage in guerrilla warfare and to provide intelligence and surveillance to disrupt the Ho Chi Minh Trail that the North Vietnamese used to send troops and weapons through Laos and Cambodia into South Vietnam.

After the conflict as well as the Laotian civil war, when the U.S.-backed government of Laos fell in 1975, they fled by the thousands to avoid reprisals from the new Communist government, escaping by foot through the jungle and then across the Mekong River into Thailand, according to a history posted on the website of Iu Mien Community Services in Sacramento, California. More than 70% of the Iu Mien population in Laos left and many wound up in refugee camps in Thailand.

Thousands of the refugees were allowed to come to the U.S., with the first waves arriving in the late 1970s and most settling along the West Coast. The culture had rich traditions of storytelling, basketry, embroidery and jewelry-making, but many initially had difficulty adjusting to Western life due to cultural and language differences as well as a lack of formal education.

There are now tens of thousands of Iu Mien — pronounced “yoo MEE’-en” — in the U.S., with many attending universities or starting businesses. Many have converted to Christianity from traditional animist religions. There is a sizeable Iu Mien community in Portland and its suburbs, with a Buddhist temple and Baptist church, active social organization, and businesses and restaurants.

Cayle Tern, president of the Iu Mien Association of Oregon, arrived in Portland with his family in 1980, when he was 3 years old. He is now running for City Council. His father and uncle assisted American forces in Laos and he was born as his mother fled to a refugee camp in Thailand.

Many Iu Mien in the U.S. have similar stories, and Saephan’s Powerball win sheds light on the new lives they have made in Oregon and elsewhere after such trauma, he said. Tern knows all three of the Powerball winners, he said.

“You know, I think for me it’s more than just about the money. … We’ve been here since the late ’70s, but very little is known of us,” he said while sitting in his uncle’s restaurant in Troutdale, a Portland suburb.

“This attention that we’re getting — people are interested in what the community is, who we are, where we came from. That is to me is equally special.”

Saephan, 46, said he was born in Laos and moved to Thailand in 1987, before immigrating to the U.S. in 1994. He graduated from high school in 1996 and has lived in Portland for 30 years. He worked as a machinist for an aerospace company.

He said Monday that he has had cancer for eight years and had his latest chemotherapy treatment last week.

“I will be able to provide for my family and my health,” he said, adding that he’d “find a good doctor for myself.”

Saephan, who has two young children, said that as a cancer patient, he wondered, “How am I going to have time to spend all of this money? How long will I live?”

He said he and his 37-year-old wife, Duanpen, are taking half the money, and the rest is going to a friend, Laiza Chao, 55, of the Portland suburb of Milwaukie. Chao had chipped in $100 to buy a batch of tickets with them.

Chao, was on her way to work when Saephan called her with the news: “You don’t have to go anymore,” he said.

In the weeks leading up to the drawing, he wrote out numbers for the game on a piece of paper and slept with it under his pillow, he said. He prayed that he would win, saying, “I need some help — I don’t want to die yet unless I have done something for my family first.”

The winning Powerball ticket was sold in early April at a Plaid Pantry convenience store in Portland, ending a winless streak that had stretched more than three months. The Oregon Lottery said it had to go through a security and vetting process before announcing the identity of the person who came forward to claim the prize.

Under Oregon law, with few exceptions, lottery players cannot remain anonymous. Winners have a year to claim the top prize.

The jackpot had a cash value of $621 million before taxes if the winner chose to take a lump sum rather than an annuity paid over 30 years, with an immediate payout followed by 29 annual installments. The prize is subject to federal taxes and state taxes in Oregon.

The $1.3 billion prize is the fourth largest Powerball jackpot in history, and the eighth largest among U.S. jackpot games, according to the Oregon Lottery.

The biggest U.S. lottery jackpot won was $2.04 billion in California in 2022.


Johnson reported from Seattle.

United States News

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A massive Powerball win draws attention to a little-known immigrant culture in the US