Refugees seek new beginning

Life before resettlement

Two hours north of Bangkok, the bustling and modern capital of Thailand, is a small turn-off that leads to a lightly guarded military checkpoint.

There, Thai soldiers guard the entrance to a refugee camp on the grounds of a Buddhist temple known as Wat Tham Krabok.

Beyond the razor wire lies a dusty and crowded shantytown that is home to approximately 15,000 Hmong refugees from Laos.

They fled communist soldiers nearly 30 years ago after fighting alongside CIA agents during secret operations aimed at cutting supply chains to neighboring Vietnam.

In recent weeks, the refugees at Wat Tham Krabok have begun to trickle into the United States to start new lives under a U.S.-sponsored resettlement program.

As many as 5,000 refugees registered for resettlement are expected to come to the Twin Cities, according to the U.S. Department of State. The first group to arrive in the area came on June 21. The Twin Cities is home to 41,000 Hmong people, the second-largest Hmong community in the United States, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

For many of them, the decision to leave Wat Tham Krabok has not been difficult. In the camp, they share earthen-floored, bamboo-walled shacks with 10 to 20 of their relatives. Raw sewage flows along narrow, dusty paths that turn into mud after rainstorms.

Thousands of barefooted children roam throughout the village playing with sticks and plastic guns, sometimes chasing an unfortunate mouse that finds itself in the open.

With little access to farmable land and the surrounding mountains, nearly every need of the people – including drinking water – must be trucked into the camp.

With little aid from the Thai government or international organizations, residents in the camp fend for themselves, living primarily on money sent to them by relatives already residing in the United States.

Because the Hmong refugees do not hold legal status in Thailand, they are not permitted to work outside the camp, said Maj. Pock, who oversees Thai military operations in the camp.

But in consideration of the poverty, the military turns a blind eye to refugees who choose to work, said Pock, who did not supply his first name. At 6 a.m. each morning, local farmers take truckloads of refugees to labor in nearby fields for a daily wage of less than $3. The amount is half the wage a Thai citizen would make for the same amount of work.

Many refugees spend their time crafting traditional Hmong clothing, knives and musical instruments that are shipped to the United States to be sold in existing Hmong communities.

Others huddle around glass jars to watch slow-paced battles of Chinese fighting fish.

On most days, fighting boredom is the primary occupation of many residents in the camp.

As these people arrive in the United States, they will face new challenges including learning English and finding work.