Sengdao came away disappointed that day, not realizing that Obama’s motorcade had taken another route through town. But last week, more than six months later, Sengdao got something even better: a personal letter from the former president offering words of advice, reflection and encouragement.
“Dear Novice Sengdao,” it began. “My staff let me know you had some questions that you had hoped to ask me during my recent visit to Laos …”
“I couldn't believe it,” the young monk said during a Skype call from Laos. “It makes me admire him even more and want to look up to him as an example.”
As a reporter covering Obama’s trip, I ran into Sengdao at his temple on the day of Obama's visit and wrote an article about him. We later learned the story had circulated throughout the U.S. Embassy in Laos, and eventually reached the White House during Obama's last months in office.
I recounted how Sengdao left his impoverished family’s rice farm as a boy to pursue a better life as a novice monk at a temple. He taught himself English by watching videos on YouTube and became fascinated with videos of Obama’s speeches. One speech in particular, he told me, had struck a nerve: Obama's victory speech after winning reelection in 2012, in which he told a crowd in Chicago that no matter who you are or where you come from, “you can make it here in America if you're willing to try.”
“He said, 'In America, you can make it if you try,'" Sengdao said that day while we waited together for Obama’s motorcade. “I think it’s very true — but not always. I want to know if it’s true in Laos.”
The letter Sengdao received from Obama last week was dated Sept. 30, 2016, just three weeks after Obama’s visit. But U.S. Embassy staff were not able to track down Sengdao and deliver it to him until last Friday, when U.S. Ambassador Rena Bitter and two members of her staff traveled to Luang Prabang. Embassy staff confirmed the letter came from Obama, but said they couldn’t comment on it without State Department approval.
So far, Sengdao has told only few friends about the visit. He has shown the actual letter to even fewer people because of how precious it feels. “It’s not a secret, but it feels very personal and private that he would choose to write something to me. I don’t want to ruin that feeling,” Sengdao said. He emailed me a copy of the letter, but asked that it not be posted in full online.
Obama encouraged Sengdao to keep pursuing his dreams and dedicate himself to improving his own life and the lives of others. “The letter is an answer to all my questions,” Sengdao said. “He is like me, someone who started from nothing. It makes me think I can do that as well.”
For a long time, Sengdao's dream has been to attend a university abroad, ideally in the United States. By studying abroad, he hopes to be able to help others by working for the United Nations or with international human rights organizations.
Last year, Sengdao applied to one of the only international scholarships for students in Laos — and was crushed to discover he missed the cut. But this year, after Obama’s visit, he applied again — attaching a copy of the article — and was one of a few chosen for final interviews.
The interview is coming up on Saturday, and Sengdao has spent the past few days reading and rereading Obama’s letter to him, hoping against the odds that the former president's belief in him will be justified.
“He is a man of hope,” Sengdao said toward the end of our call. “And it makes me unique, I think, because now he has given these words of hope to me.”