Hmong Prepare for New Refugees
Their numbers in capital soon may rise by 4,000
Stephen Magagnini, Sacramento Bee, Feb. 8.
By summer’s end, some 14,000 Hmong who have been stuck in fetid Thai refugee camps for decades finally will get the green light to come to America.
Most are the families of veterans of the CIA’s secret war against the Lao and Vietnamese communists, guerrilla fighters who risked their lives for American soldiers and pilots. When the communists conquered Laos in 1975, the Hmong were driven from their mountain villages.
Since the mid-1990s, they have been living in a compound next to Wat Tham Krabok, a Buddhist temple several hours north of Bangkok.
On Friday night, two Hmong leaders-one representing the Hmong’s romantic past, the other a pragmatic view of their future-held meetings in Sacramento to deal with the new wave of Hmong refugees and the tremendous adjustment problems they will face once they get to America.
At the Sacramento Lao Family Community Center, General Vang Pao, leader of the Hmong guerrillas during the Vietnam War, gave a ringing speech to 200 Hmong loyalists about the long-overdue debt America owes the Hmong.
Meanwhile, at the county Department of Human Assistance on Florin Road, May Ying Ly, director of the Hmong Women’s Heritage Association, convened social workers, teachers, police and activists who will bear the brunt of the new wave.
As many as 4,000 will come to Sacramento, which has the third-largest concentration of Hmong in the United States behind Fresno and St. Paul, Minn.
Nearly all the 22,000 Hmong in the Sacramento area have cousins, siblings, children or parents in Wat Tham Krabok. The compound has no running water. Food is scarce. So is education. About 4,000 Hmong children have been turned away from Thai schools, according to one Thai newspaper account.
The joy and excitement that American Hmong feel over the prospect of being reunited with their long-lost relatives is mixed with anxiety over the fate of 45,000 Hmong living outside the temple. Many of them left in search of food, jobs and schools for their children. Now, they can’t get back in-and it’s doubtful whether they, too, will be permitted to come to the United States.
Among those on the outside is Ly’s aunt, whose husband, a gunner in Vang Pao’s CIA-financed army, was crippled by a bullet lodged in his leg. He and many other Hmong veterans refused to come to the United States in the 1980s because they believed Vang Pao one day would rally them to retake Laos so they could go home.
It never happened. The husband of May Ying’s aunt died several years ago, and the aunt got Thai documentation so she could escape the mind-numbing confines of the camp to work outside. Now, she is among those who can’t get back in.
Many of those in and around the camp are afraid to come to America. Most fled other Thai refugee camps that were closing in the 1990s-giving up their official refugee status-to avoid being resettled here.
But the Lao government doesn’t want them, and attempts to resettle them throughout Thailand have been vigorously opposed by local citizens.
Tsia Xiong, a Hmong activist in Sacramento, said he’s been to Wat Tham Krabok four times.
“Many of the people were children and elderly. A lot of teenagers and people in their 20s and 30s, including two of my cousins, had to go outside to survive,” he said. They were gone last summer when the Thai military registered the 14,000 Hmong at the temple for resettlement to the United States.
The State Department has said that only those on the Thai list and their spouses and minor children qualify for immediate resettlement. The rest can be sponsored separately by their American relatives, or apply for refugee status at the Bangkok office of the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees, routes to America that likely will take years.
As bad as life is in Thailand, it does have some advantages, Xiong said.
“One of the fears is that Hmong in America are losing their culture,” he said. “(Those in Thailand) are not losing their kids to violence or gangs or drugs. Their family units are intact. There’s no educational outlet for the kids, but the majority of people my parents’ age are living there happily.”
When they get here, he asked, “Who’s going to pick them up and go through all the paperwork? Who’s going to take them to the hospital when they get sick? Who’s going to report a crime?”
Many of the Hmong in Sacramento live in depressed neighborhoods and attend schools where fights are common, Xiong said. Even those who have avoided violence are struggling, he said: “There are 7,000 Hmong in the Sacramento Unified School District and only 4 percent are reading at grade level.”
Patrick Vang, a Hmong teacher at Burbank High School, recalled the hardships of the Hmong who arrived here in the 1970s and 1980s.
“The first wave took about 10 years to adjust to this society,” he said. “Many committed suicide. No matter how much we help them (the newcomers), they’re going to have emotional problems. I’m glad that people are coming, but I’m worried. … Our kids aren’t doing good in school because nobody teaches them or their parents how to survive in this country.”
Ly and other advocates laid out a game plan for the newcomers:
American Hmong who want their relatives to come here must fill out an official statement-of-interest form.
The Hmong at the temple will have up to a year to request an interview with the State Department, which will begin screening applicants in mid-March.
When the new Hmong begin arriving, the refugee agencies that have sponsored them will provide housing, food, clothing, health care and job training for 30 days, Ly said.
Then, state and local agencies will take over, and able-bodied Hmong can qualify for CalWorks, a five-year program that offers financial help, MediCal, child care and English classes while they’re trained for jobs. A variety of other programs are available for disabled, blind and elderly Hmong, and Hmong adults without families.
But there are problems that must be solved in Thailand. One Sacramento Hmong man tearfully related how his sister wants to come to the United States, but her husband doesn’t. “He beat her so black and blue she fainted,” he said. “I want her to come to this country because I know there are laws here to protect her.”
Joy Dorman, district director of World Relief, said women in similar situations can ask the State Department to interview them without their husbands. They also can appeal to the Thai guards and international refugee officials at the camp.
Meanwhile, at the Lao Family Community Center, Gen. Vang Pao stoked the dream that the Hmong someday will return to Laos.
After the crowd sang the American and Lao national anthems, the general said that when Indochina fell to the communists in 1975, “we left some of our families and comrades in Thailand, and worse, our comrades who have been trapped in the jungles of Laos for 28 years.”
He estimated that more than 20,000 Hmong resistance fighters and their families are still in the jungles, while an unknown number are in Lao prisons.
“We should save them any way we can. We have to put our differences aside and negotiate with the communists to bring peace and harmony to Laos.”
He said he is working with Norm Coleman, a U.S. senator from Minnesota, to find a way to bring the 45,000 Hmong outside the temple to America, too. If they can’t come immediately, he urged the United States and its allies to give them money to buy land for farming and schools.
Vang Pao said all 18 Hmong clans are his family and that all 60,000 Hmong in Thailand deserve to come to the United States.
“It doesn’t matter what their status is,” he said. “They put their lives on the line to save American lives. They at least deserve a future for their children.”