Refugees again: Bleak economy driving S.J. Hmong to other states

Monday, June 22, 2009

By Jennifer Torres
Record Staff Writer
June 22, 2009 6:00 AM

STOCKTON - This month Pao Thao is relying on a check from his younger brother to help pay the rent, and if he can't find work in July, he says, he will move his family from their home on Kelley Drive and on to what he hopes are better prospects in Minnesota.

"As long as we can find employment, we want to stay," he said. "As we know in this country, everything is money. It's tough."

Thao; his wife, Chia Yang; and their 4-year-old son, Koua, came to California in 2004, among the last large group of Hmong refugees to be settled in Stockton.

Beginning in the late 1970s, thousands of Hmong - after fleeing their homeland in Laos where they were persecuted for their assistance to American military forces during the Vietnam War - were moved to the United States. The Central Valley has one of the largest Hmong populations in the nation.

For many, the challenges of language, poverty and low levels of literacy persist. Added to them now is an economy in which 46,500 San Joaquin County residents who want work are out of work. For many Hmong, continued survival means a migration out of California.

Pam Khang is health coordinator for the Lao Family Community of Stockton. Driving to visit the Thao family, who are clients of the social services agency, Khang said Hmong residents are leaving the Valley "left and right."

Lao Family was founded more than 25 years ago to help Hmong refugees adapt to a new culture, find work, communicate with schools and hospitals and complete immigration documents.

Its effort continues. Right now, CEO Ger Vang said, helping clients secure jobs is one of Lao Family's most challenging tasks. It's also an urgent one because welfare benefits for refugees end after five years.

For those, such as Thao, who came in 2004, that time is about up.

"Survival in this country is very difficult," Thao said. "Now it's close to the cutoff date. The clock is ticking."

Thao and Yang grew up in a Thai refugee camp. When he turned 13, Thao said, he began working: farm labor, construction and some carpentry.

Earlier this week, he opened his Stockton home to a couple who came to see his father, a shaman.

The woman was pregnant and worried. The shaman chanted and beat a cymbal and tossed water buffalo horns to communicate with the spirit world. He sat the woman in a folding chair and performed a ritual meant to protect her baby.

The community continues to rely on such services from Thao's father, but Thao has had a hard time finding a paying job for himself.

About a year and a half after his arrival, he said, he got a job at a window company. He was laid off in 2007. He has kept his final pay stub.

"I would do any type of work, any type of job, as long as I'm able to be employed and support the family," Thao said.

Census statistics are beginning to document the movement out of the Central Valley that Hmong families describe in their communities.

In 2004, there were 3,712 Hmong living in the county, a figure that nearly doubled to 7,100 two years later. In 2007, the latest year for which census figures are available, there were about 6,700 Hmong living in the county.

Meanwhile, several states that did not have a significant Hmong population in the past now are experiencing an influx.

Alaska, for example, has become a destination.

Tsia Xiong, a local community organizer, said many families are attracted to Alaska because of its fishing season.

"One of the dilemmas our community is facing is how can we expect our newest refugees to obtain jobs when they don't have the adequate skills to really compete," Xiong said. "That's a huge concern."

Arkansas has seen its Hmong population grow from about 1,400 in 2004 to more than 3,000 in 2007.

Tou Lee is president of the Hmong Association in Arkansas, founded in 2005 to offer translation and support - the sort of assistance Lao Family was launched decades ago to provide. "Language is the biggest challenge," Lee said. "Language is also a challenge for the schools and hospitals, because they cannot find any resource or anyone to help them out. At the same time, cultural difference is also a challenge. Many in the mainstream do not have any experience with the Asian community."

The association is based in Siloam Springs, in northwest Arkansas at the Oklahoma border. Most of the Hmong residents living there came from other states, including California, Lee said.

"Land is still cheap," he said. "They can acquire some land. They can do some farming for themselves as well as live peacefully."

Yang and Thao said they are grateful to have come to the United States. They remain hopeful of finding work.

"It's better to be here," Yang said. "If you are young, you have more opportunity in this country than in Thailand. If you're talking about making a living, it's more difficult."

Contact reporter Jennifer Torres at (209) 546-8252 or


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