/sanctuary apr 14 '17
Story is central to human understanding—it makes life livable, because without a story, there is no identity, no self, no other (Lewis, 2011).
Laos in the House, Stories Board

The Sanctuary atmosphere of Philadelphia Assembled is pleased to be partnering with Laos in the House, a Philadelphia arts organization that focuses on bringing Lao American artists and local Lao community members together to tell and hear personal stories. As our working group has continued look through the lens of sanctuary at the experiences of Philadelphians who are refugees & immigrants, LGBTQ, active drug users, involved in sex work, and/or who are at high risk for contracting HIV/AIDS, hepatitis and other blood-borne diseases, we have come to see storytelling as a central component of our upcoming exhibits and a powerful tool for creating human connections, shared space, and the possibility of sanctuary.

Laos in the House puts storytelling at the center of what it does. Founded by spoken word artist Catzie Vilayphonh – the organization began as a way for Lao artists to share their work. In addition, a central part of its mission is to tell other Lao stories that people may not be comfortable telling themselves and encourage the Philadelphia Lao diaspora to post photos and short descriptions of Lao experiences in Laos, refugee camps and the U.S.

It was a pleasure to speak with Catzie a few weeks ago and hear her talk about her life as an artist and Lao American in the United States and her experiences with bringing Laos in the House to fruition. She said, “It can be hard to bring Lao Americans to our work. Art is often seen as a luxury – if you have nothing else to worry about, it can be a hobby. Art is often seen as for the elite. I tell the story of Lao Americans but Lao Americans often don’t get to see it. But if you’re not given your history, you think you are somebody else…We are writing our own history book.”

These stories are also important for other Americans to hear because of the invisibility of the role that the US plays in the conflict, loss of life, and destruction in Laos. As Catzie explained, “We are refugees of war because of American foreign policy, but a lot of people think we were ‘saved by Americans’.” When we talked about the possibilities of storytelling as sanctuary, Catzie talked about those who don’t feel comfortable or would be re-traumatized by telling their own stories: “If you hear your story in someone else’s story, that’s a kind of sanctuary. You’re not taking the risk, but your story is being told. You’re telling my story so I don’t have to. The void of your voice isn’t missing. It creates visibility and a voice for the community both to itself and to others. Outside of our community, it also helps others see the refugee experience as part of the Vietnam War story.”

Creating creative, people-driven, respectful spaces for communicating these stories and other artistic expression within and across Philadelphia communities is something that Laos in the House and Philadelphia Assembled both have as essential goals of our work. If you are intrigued by Laos in the House and their work (and you should be), be sure to check out their Lao New Year Popup at the Institute of Contemporary Art on May 6th: #BLESSED. More details here:

As the website says, “Bringing together Lao Americans in continuing their cultural legacy through storytelling and the arts. Take off your shoes and join us (”

Stay tuned for announcements this spring and summer when Philadelphia Assembled partners with Laos in the House, the New Sanctuary Movement Philadelphia, The Attic Youth Center, Prevention Point Philadelphia, Project SAFE, and Broad Street Ministry, as we explore storytelling as sanctuary in places, spaces, and modalities around the city and at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Ellen Skilton
Founding Board Member
Just Act: An Arts-based Catalyst for Community Change

Lewis, P.J. (2011). Storytelling as Research/Research as Storytelling. Qualitative Inquiry 17 (6), pp. 505-510.