Monday, December 7, 2009
When Ger Vang, now 19, stepped into Barb Fuhrmann's English Language Learners class at Sheboygan South High School four years ago, Fuhrmann saw at once that there was something different about the young man who greeted her with a confident "hello."
Calling him "quiet, yet extremely driven," Fuhrmann watched as Ger progressed through his classes. Although he arrived in the United States knowing little English, he showed a determination to learn and to be independent of translators.
Before that happened, though, Fuhrmann met with Vang's family and a translator to find out more about their story.
Born in Laos in 1990, Ger is the youngest of nine children. His father, Boua Hue Vang, and oldest brother had been recruited during the Vietnam War by the CIA. As a result, the entire Vang family lived in the jungles of Laos for almost 15 years, hiding with groups of other women and children whose husbands and eldest sons had fought the communists.
Ger's mother, Chu, fed her children roots, bamboo shoots and the soft insides of trees, seeking any food source she could while avoiding the Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese, who hunted the jungles for them.
One day, when Chu left her children behind to hunt for food, the communists invaded the encampment, forcing the other women to flee with as many children as they could grab. Her 2-month-old son was left behind, killed as soon as he was found, along with other children who couldn't move fast enough to escape.
In 1993, Ger's father was killed by the communists. After hastily covering his body, other men in the group rushed back to warn the others, who ran for safety. But the communists captured them, discovering papers linking them to the CIA. The men listed on those papers were rounded up, tortured and killed, including another of Chu's sons.
Chu didn't escape either — hauled to prison, she was tortured, whipped and drugged.
"My father was a CIA soldier for the Americans," Ger explained through his interpreter, Vue Thao, an educational assistant at South High. "The communists knew that my father was working for the Americans, so that's why they tortured my mother."
During her imprisonment, Ger said he and his siblings were cared for by his grandmother. Three years later, his mother was released and the family returned to the jungle, living there for another four years before eventually making their way to the American embassy in Bangkok.
When Ger recalled his three years at the Thai encampment, his breath quickened and his thumb continually clicked the push button of his pen. He shook his head and looked at Thao.
"Think of it like a concentration camp," Thao said. "You don't go outside because soldiers can capture you and send you back to the jungle."
Later, Ger said,"We had to hide and hide. All of our faces were turning pale, but we still have to stay home and can't leave the home. Some of Thai people around us are actually good and nice, but some are really bad and mean, so we had to be careful."
Schooling was sporadic in Thailand, but Ger picked up enough conversational English to help when the family left for the United States.
"My mother's sister sponsored us," Ger said of the move that brought them to Sheboygan. Within weeks, Chu had him enrolled at South High.
The Hmong culture places a high value on education, and Thao said that many parents want to see their children pursue advanced education.
"They believe education is very important and will make their child's life easier," he said. "This is true that Hmong children who experience hardships in the camps or country will tend to have a desire to go to school more than those Hmong children that were born in the U.S."
In June, Ger graduated from South High School and headed to the University of Wisconsin-Sheboygan, taking classes in English, math and computer science with a goal of pursuing a career in the computer industry.
Ger's determination was something both Fuhrmann and Thao took note of.
"He came to us with such perseverance and has never looked back," Fuhrmann said. "I believe he sees this new life as a new beginning, as a second chance at his life."
Thao knows that Ger will accomplish whatever goals he sets, calling him "one of the brightest students and very motivated to learn."
When Ger reflects on his youth, he seems incredulous. "I can't believe that in just moment, my life is totally changed," he said. "And just moment, I already had gone through those difficult and dangerous situations."
He likes life in Sheboygan, though, glad that his family is together, with the exception of a brother who lives in Thailand. Adapting to not only the new language, but also the weather has been a challenge, though —there's no snow where he grew up.
A few years ago, Fuhrmann asked Ger that if he ever had the chance to live his life differently, would he? He responded with a simple 'no,' saying, "The experience I have been through has taught me the difference between right and wrong."