The Hmong and their role in American History

It would not happen very often on our tour that we would encounter a topic that made us feel like complete rookies.  Our meeting with Erica Lee on Tuesday, 29th of September who told us about Southeast Asian Refugee Migrations and Communities in the Twin Cities was one of those.

Most startling might have been the story about the Hmong refugee and their role as Secret Army that supported the US in their fight against communist forces in Laos and Vietnam during the 60s until the fall of Saigon in 1975.

Erica Lee showed us a slideshow with photos of the New York Times.

The Hmong was a minority in Laos that was known for its anti-communist feelings. They were convinced that their slash and burn agriculture would not be supported by the communists and feared reprisals from North Vietnam.  Most importantly their land was surrounded by one of the  regions that was very often a theater of war. The US promised them to care for them in case the war would not end victorious. Therefore there had never been this kind of stigma concerning welfare when they later arrived in the US.

Nonetheless it was only a few thousand of them to be airlifted after the lost war in 1975. Entire Hmong villages fled into the jungles and lived there for months or spent years in refugee camps in Thailand.  Until the late 1980s about 60 000 Hmong resettled in the US  –  a number that is almost similar to the number of Hmong living in the Twin Cities today. As the US refugee policy intended to spread them like a layer of butter across the states in order to minimize financial burdens on the different communities they were brought to different parts of the country at first. However nobody thought about the stress and trauma refugees like them suffered from and which made it hard for them to deal with the obstacles of daily life. The result was a second wave of migration that brought another 10 000 to 15 000 to Minneapolis and St. Paul. In St. Paul alone lives about 60 to 75% of the Hmong minority, whereby they also revitalized a part of the city that was formerly not very strong economically.

Their most prominent way in order to help them assimilate is the Hip Hop culture – which is not astonishing as Erica Lee tells us because their culture traditionally is involved in oral and singing storytelling. Their language exists in the written way only for 50 years by now. They have to face kind of the same hostility as Chinese immigrants had during the 19th century. Next to that women tend to assimilate more easily while a lot of men find it hard to find a job as they have never been anything else but farmers and soldiers. Posttraumatic stress disorder is a wide spread problem among the Hmong. Gangs are common.

During our tour we reflected on many immigrant groups, groups that came to the States voluntarily, searching for work and the American Dream.  The Hmong however are the newer immigrants the United States have to deal with, immigrants that are strikingly different to those Europeans that arrived in the beginning of the 20th century. They are refugees, coming to the States in lack of better alternatives and that bring burdens with them which complicate their struggle to blend in more than a lot of Americans might imagine.

Tina Neundorf

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