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Laos refugee gets teeth into business

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There’s not much that Aenoy Phommala remembers about fleeing Laos, but her experience is one of many refugee success stories in New Zealand.

There’s not much that Aenoy Phommala remembers about fleeing Laos, but her experience is one of many refugee success stories in New Zealand. An oral health therapist who has recently opened her own clinic, Aenoy was a babe in arms when her parents were convinced by family to leave in 1983 for a better life elsewhere.

Most Laotians came to New Zealand as refugees in the years after the Communist Pathet Lao party overthrew the country’s 600-year-old monarchy. A rule of terror followed; between 1975 and 1995, 300,000 people were tortured and killed.

“The communist regime was very draconian, and there was a scarcity of jobs and food in Laos at that time,” she says.

They left behind two older children to be looked after by family and escaped with six-month old Aenoy and with another baby on the way. Like many Southeast Asian refugees, they ended up in a refugee camp in Thailand where they stayed until they received asylum from the New Zealand government three years later in 1986. Aenoy’s parents resettled in Hamilton and nearly five years later they were able to send for their older boys to live with them in the home they had purchased.

“I didn’t fully realise that I had brothers until they arrived in New Zealand.”

It’s a familiar story amongst refugee families; their reasons for leaving are varied and not something any of them have taken lightly. For many it is the second generation who are able to take full advantage of what living in a developed country brings.

In Aenoy’s case, she grew up in New Zealand and her English is better that her Lao. She attended the local schools; Richmond Park Primary, Melville Intermediate and Hamilton Girls’ High School. But it wasn’t all smooth sailing, she left school at 16 without a qualification and worked in low paid work for several years. A surprise pregnancy when she was 20 became the prime motivator for Aenoy to turn her life around.

“I didn’t have my bachelors then. I was probably not on the right path. But her arrival kind of kicked me into gear and I realised that if I was going to be a good mom and a good role model, I needed to sort my life out.”

When her daughter was 18 months, Aenoy embarked on a Bachelor of Health Science (Oral Health) at Auckland University of Technology. It was the first year the combined dental therapy and dental hygiene degree had been introduced in New Zealand. Just like her parents had fled Laos for a better life for their children, Aenoy committed to spending the three years of study living in Auckland from Monday to Friday while her daughter was cared for by her grandparents.

“I knew the situation I was in and I knew needed a career to be able to provide for us. I just had to toughen up, get a bit of grit and just knuckle down. I missed her dearly being up there, missing her prime growth and development. But I wanted to be completed by the time she started school so I could be there for her while she was at school.”

After graduating in 2009, Aenoy spent many years working for the Waikato District Health Board and in a private dental practice. She took time off after the birth of her son in 2021 before setting up a dental hygiene clinic to provide affordable services to the people of Hamilton and the greater Waikato. Her partner Carl Edwards has been by her side all through the highs and lows of setting up a business.

“I wouldn’t have been able to set up the clinic without his support both emotionally and financially, he has truly been my anchor.  Kept me grounded during rough seas. “

Based at Alexander Street in the Hamilton CBD, Aenoy opened the Oral Hygiene Clinic in March and it is the only one of its kind in Hamilton. There are only four dental hygiene clinics in New Zealand Unlike a dentist who is a general practitioner of dental health, an oral hygiene therapist hones in on disease prevention, through clinical intervention and education.  

“Dentists like to take care of dental health, and oral health therapists and dental hygienists focus better at taking care of the gum health – the other half of the teeth/gum relationship,” she says.

Passionate about oral health, it was important to Aenoy to have the latest technology in dental hygiene services. She invested in an Airflow that uses warm water and powder to gently remove bacteria, which is especially effective on implants.

“It’s bacteria that can cause tooth decay, or gum disease. We should be regularly maintaining our gum health and having hygiene care. People are becoming more aware that it’s not just our oral health that it impacts but our systemic health as well. There are a lot of links to heart and lung health.”

She has noticed more life back in the city and says people are starting to hear about the clinic, whether it be word-of-mouth or through referrals.

“The word is slowly getting out about the clinic. I did everything myself in setting up the clinic. I didn’t have a project manager. There wasn’t really any money left in the kitty for advertising and marketing. We did what we could do and now it’s nice to get a little bit more momentum.”

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