Hmong refugees headed for state

Beginning in June, about 3,500 Hmong will immigrate to the Twin Cities.

Josh Verges

University student Ker Thao shares a house with seven family members. This July, she’ll be cooking for five more.

Her aunt, uncle and their three young children are coming to St. Paul as part of the Hmong refugee relocation agreement between the U.S. and Thai governments.

“All the kids in the family are grown up already. Sometimes I feel like there’s no one home. Now there will be little kids running around,” said Thao, a senior with an individualized major in art, design and business.

From June through early next year, approximately 13,000 Hmong from the Wat Tham Krabok refugee camp in northern Thailand will immigrate to the United States. The Twin Cities will host approximately 3,500 refugees.

The agreement is an effort to close a chapter in U.S. history. The United States enlisted Hmong as special agents to fight the spread of communism during the Vietnam War.

After the war, the Hmong fled Laos for Thailand. A later repatriation effort drew the Hmong back to Laos but ultimately failed, leaving them to again return to Thailand.

Although media reports put the Hmong population in Thailand at approximately 60,000, only those registered at Wat Tham Krabok are eligible for relocation so far.

John Borden, International Institute of Minnesota casework director, joined St. Paul Mayor Randy Kelly in March on a fact-finding visit to the refugee camp.

Unlike true refugee camps operating under the support of nongovernmental organizations, Wat Tham Krabok residents pay for whatever they get, Borden said.

“The folks who have nothing get nothing,” he said.

This has led to unsanitary conditions and a largely uneducated, unhealthy population, Borden said.

Still, Borden said approximately 800 refugees were taking English language classes when he visited the camp.

Housing and culture

Borden said housing will not be a great concern in the Twin Cities, where about half of the Hmong families live in nonrental homes. Many of the Hmong families have indicated they are willing to take in the refugees.

“The response from the Hmong population has been truly remarkable,” he said.

Thao shares one of six bedrooms with her younger sister, the second of four Thao children to attend the University.

She said the refugees will likely sleep in the basement for a month, while they look for work and their own apartment.

The new arrivals highlight the tension within the Thao family over a desire to hold onto Hmong traditions and the need to assimilate into the mainstream United States.

Thao’s parents speak both languages at home, but while the five refugees do not speak English, Thao’s younger siblings speak little Hmong.

“When they come here we’re going to learn a lot more (about Hmong culture),” she said. “They are the originals.”

But for the refugees who are used to life without running water, the transition will take time.

“It will be very hard for them to adjust to this kind of living,” Thao said.

An easier adjustment

Doua Vang, director of family and employment programs at the Hmong American Mutual Assistance Association, said this wave of immigrants will find adjusting to U.S. life easier than those who came in the 1980s.

The association is one of several organizations that will help the immigrants learn English and find jobs and housing.

The first Hmong immigrants came to the United States in the 1970s and spoke some English, he said. Those who came during the 1980s, like the Wat Tham Krabok refugees, spoke little to no English.

But this time the refugees will have the help of 50,000 Hmong living in Minnesota. Vang said many of the refugees know what to expect because they communicate with family here.

He said refugees coming to the Twin Cities are likely to find manufacturing jobs, where the language barrier will not be a serious detriment.

A greater concern is the immigrant children, who Borden said have little education beyond informal in-camp lessons. Refugees enrolled in Thai schools typically study two topics: the Thai language and “love of the king,” or pro-government, classes.

Twin Cities Hmong organizations are preparing to help those refugees, most of whom are under 15 years old, according to a report from the St. Paul mayor’s office.

Vang’s association sponsors the Youth Empowerment Program, which is designed to keep Hmong teenagers in school and out of trouble.

Vang hopes these programs will ease what has been an especially difficult transition in the past.

The first wave of Hmong immigrants took five to 10 years to become productive, Vang said, while this group should take three to five years.

“The Hmong Ö are here to live, not to visit,” Vang said. “This is our home. We may need time to learn the daily life.”

But some Hmong see the United States as little more than a stop along the way.

Thao said a friend’s family that returned to Laos in 1999 lives very well because of the money they saved while working in the United States.

And although Thao’s father – a former nurse with the U.S. Army – has been in the United States for 30 years, he often talks about returning to Laos to help Hmong still there.

But for now they’ll worry about helping Hmong in St. Paul – an obligation Borden said could take longer than the Thaos expect.

Borden said it is unrealistic for most non-English speaking families to expect to be self-sufficient after one month here.

But Thao said the Hmong tradition does not allow them to turn away family members in need.

“When you talk about Hmong families, they can stay here as long as they want,” Thao said. “I just really hate cooking.”