Hmong football star at ease in two cultures

Friday, April 30, 2010

Evergreens football player Jerry Lee stands Thursday at D.C. Everest High School’s Stiehm Stadium in Weston. (Xai Kha/Wausau Daily Herald)

American football and Hmong history don't often get paired together, but they will be Friday when Jerry Lee speaks at Wausau's Hmong History Month luncheon.

Lee, an 18-year-old senior at D.C. Everest Senior High School, distinguished himself as a star safety on the Everest football team, and the sport has influenced him almost as much as his Hmong heritage. He wasn't the first or only Hmong player for the Evergreens, but his style of play and outgoing personality put him in a leadership role both on and off the field.

"I kind of like to consider myself a symbol, a role model," Lee said. "I see so much talent within the Hmong community, and I'm hoping that kids will see me and say, 'Hey, I can do that, too.'"

The theme for April's Hmong History Month has been "Our Continuing Journey," and the speakers at the luncheon represent the steps the Hmong community has taken from their participation in The Secret War in Laos to its migration and establishment in the United States.

Lee's inclusion represents the youth of the community, and his football prowess is a symbol of his immersion in American culture. But at the same time, he's proud of being Hmong, and vows he'll preserve many Hmong traditions with his own children when it comes time. But he also thinks that some nuances of Hmong culture likely will vanish as teens of his generation grow up, go to college and become involved in their careers.

Lee's father was too young to fight in the war, and came to this country as a young man of 18. As Lee grew up in the Wausau area, his parents worked hard to establish the family in America.

Lee grew up speaking Hmong, but also was encouraged to speak English, and he always was pushed to excel in school.

While tradition and Hmong ways are important in his home, he also was steeped in American ways. He embraced the fact that he could shift from Hmong culture to white American culture on a whim, and found himself with both Hmong friends and Caucasian friends, all from a variety of backgrounds.
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Football grabbed hold of Lee early. He remembers watching it on television, and playing the game with his stuffed animals. But Hmong football players are rare, and when he asked his parents if he could play in middle school, they balked at first. He was too small; he would get hurt, they said. It was too expensive.

Those are hurdles that keep plenty of Hmong teens from getting involved in extracurricular activities, Lee said. Many Hmong children have responsibilities at home, so they're discouraged from participating in after-school activities.

Lee persevered, and when he got into his first game, it just felt right to him. He was a running back, and scored early and often. He found he loved the game, and rose through the ranks to eventually become a leader on the varsity team.

Everest coach Wayne Steffenhagen said Lee was first of all an outstanding person, then an outstanding player.

"He was tough, very physical on the field," Steffenhagen said. "He displayed tremendous courage at times, personally and physically."

Steffenhagen believes that more Hmong players will end up on the football field, and by extension, in other after-school activities.

"We're very ecstatic about that," he said. "There's so much benefit they can gain educationally and personally."

For a while, Lee had dreams of becoming the first Hmong NFL player. He even was offered some partial scholarships from smaller schools, but ultimately decided that attending University of Wisconsin-Madison would be his best bet.

He sees no conflict with being proud of being Hmong while pursuing the American dream.

"I like how my lifestyle is," Lee said. "I like sports. I like being Hmong. ... I like a little of everything. It's never boring, that's how I see it."

Football grabbed hold of Lee early. He remembers watching it on television, and playing the game with his stuffed animals. But Hmong football players are rare, and when he asked his parents if he could play in middle school, they balked at first. He was too small; he would get hurt, they said. It was too expensive.

Those are hurdles that keep plenty of Hmong teens from getting involved in extracurricular activities, Lee said. Many Hmong children have responsibilities at home, so they're discouraged from participating in after-school activities.

Lee persevered, and when he got into his first game, it just felt right to him. He was a running back, and scored early and often. He found he loved the game, and rose through the ranks to eventually become a leader on the varsity team.

Everest coach Wayne Steffenhagen said Lee was first of all an outstanding person, then an outstanding player.

"He was tough, very physical on the field," Steffenhagen said. "He displayed tremendous courage at times, personally and physically."

Steffenhagen believes that more Hmong players will end up on the football field, and by extension, in other after-school activities.

"We're very ecstatic about that," he said. "There's so much benefit they can gain educationally and personally."

For a while, Lee had dreams of becoming the first Hmong NFL player. He even was offered some partial scholarships from smaller schools, but ultimately decided that attending University of Wisconsin-Madison would be his best bet.

He sees no conflict with being proud of being Hmong while pursuing the American dream.

"I like how my lifestyle is," Lee said. "I like sports. I like being Hmong. ... I like a little of everything. It's never boring, that's how I see it."



LAO PDR Government and HMONG CHAOFA Indigenous Resistance Clash in Xaysombun Special Zone, Phou Bia Mountain, North-Central Laos

Wednesday, April 28, 2010


On April 24, 2010, around 2:30 p.m. Lao time, Northeast of Mountain Phou Bia, Xaysombune Special Zone inside sources reported that there is very heavy fighting. The Lao PDR invaded Hmong Indigenous territories. Weapons used included 60 MM, 40MM, and DKA 81, and missiles were fired from helicopter at Hmong Indigenous citizens.

Reports also indicated that Vietnamese soldiers accompanied Lao PDR soldiers in this invasion. The Vietnamese Battalion is from Mong Mot Province, and it is now stationed in Phankini-Nam Xay, Pha Kao Province.
In 2005, 30 years later after the Vietnam War ended, Vietnamese soldiers' passports were seized at the Zone supporting the Lao PDR aggression against the Hmong.

The government of Laos and Vietnam have violated the mercenary statutes of the U.N. conventions, and the Vietnam Paris Peace Accord 1973, Chapter VII Article 20.

Hmong Indigenous leaders call upon the international community - the European Union, the United Nations, the United States, and China - to review the Lao PDR actions, violations and aggression against the Hmong Indigenous' social, cultural and economic rights and concerns. Leaders of the Hmong Indigenous are calling upon the international recognition of their plight.

A recent confiscated Lao document confirming intent to eliminate Hmong at the Zone is as follows:

(English Translation Version)
The Lao People's Army NO. 131
Department of Armed Forces, Statistic from Luang Phrabang Province
Operation Order

- Based on the plan and the decree of the Department of Defense of the Lao People Democratic Republic notice number 125 on May 3, 2005.

- Based on the planning of Luang Phrabang Province made and be complied.
I, Mr. Kham Onh Chittamee of the coordinating Regiment of Luang Phrabang, decree to all parties - including all troops of soldiers in the Province of Luang Phrabang - that we must unify strongly against our enemy since the government plan commanded that between 2005-2015 to eradicate all right-wing American Vang Pao who have been residually camouflaging in the Lao jungles. These people must be terminated prior to 2015-2020 from Laos.
The American C.I.A. Hmong, together with their offspring forgotten by the Americans, shall be wiped out immediately. After 2020, not one of them will be alive nor will the they fight a secret war. Therefore, I command all of our parties in Luang Phrabang province to carry out this order from now.

Luang Phrabang 20 May 2005
The Regiment of Luang Phrabang
Sealed and signature
Kham Onh Chittamee

The United Nations was created in January 1941 in the vision of Franklin D. Roosevelt for peace and security for all nations and peoples. It was founded as recognition of the importance of the security of all human beings, and the rights to have freedom and liberty as a nation and people. All citizens live and carry his vision through to today.

The Lao PDR does not recognize the rights of others. It discriminates against the ChaoFa Hmong people and their cultural, social, and religious rights. The Regiment of Luang Phrabang, Mr. Kham Onh Chittamee, declared on May 20, 2005, to wipe out all ChaoFa Hmong and their offspring immediately or before the year 2020, and no one shall be alive there after the year 2020.

To date, the Lao PDR government continues to violates U.N. Charters, Conventions, and its Protocols, and the government ignores international interventions and visitations. The Lao PDR is responsible for committing mass crimes against humanity.

Over 250,000 people, civilians and innocent Hmong Indigenous and their children - are belived to have lost their lives since 1975 as a result of Lao military clashes in the Hmong Indigenous territories.

The civilian lives of Laotians are as important as the civilian lives of the Hmong Indigenous, and the Lao PDR government must recognize the safety of civilians of both nations and people in accordance with the Geneva Convention IV of 12 August 1949.

Hmong Indigenous leaders and the Congress of World Hmong People urge the international community to take this matter seriously before additional loss of life.

For more information, call Lorly Mong at 651-788-7357.



Hmong cooking is simple, constantly adapting

Kia Her, owner of Sy-Am Garden Thai restaurant on West Thomas Street in Wausau, adds sliced cucumbers to the wok where the chicken is cooking. (Photo by Xai Kha/Wausau Daily Herald)

Through the years, as members of the Hmong community left Southeast Asia for a new life in the United States, many aspects of their lives changed, including the way they cook, leaving Hmong cooking in a constant state of transition.

"The food we make is so different in this country," said Kia Her, owner of Sy-Am Garden Thai Restaurant in Wausau. "Here, you can find so many different kinds of sauces and vegetables. In the old country, you cooked with only oil and salt, or with MSG if you could afford it."

Neng Chang, owner of Sawadee Thai Restaurant in Wausau, said that in Laos, where he grew up, cooking was simple. People used organic ingredients grown in their own gardens.

"In Laos, we tried to eat only healthy things. We didn't want to consume food that wasn't going to be beneficial for our body," said Chang, who immigrated to the United States in 1987.

Hmong cooking is heavily influenced by the cuisine of other Southeast Asian countries, including Thailand and China. Though it can be spicy at times, traditional Hmong cooking notably is bland, the 31-year-old Her said.

"Hmong cooking is very plain and simple. Back in the old days, you didn't have a lot of ingredients to cook with," she said. "A meal would include one kind of vegetable, with a side of white rice. If you were lucky enough to have meat -- usually pork, chicken or beef -- you would just boil it in a pot of water until it was cooked through."

Because most meat is boiled, soups and stews also are popular dishes, Chang said. Steamed fish, seasoned only with salt and oil, is common as well.

"Making these dishes here in America, they taste so much better," said Chang, 41, of Wausau, who attended cooking school in Thailand before opening Sawadee in 2003. "Here, you can just go to the supermarket and buy anything you want for your stews and stir-frys. It's a very different story."

In the United States, many Hmong recipes have been altered to incorporate ingredients such as tofu, hot peppers, green onion and cilantro, Her said.

One thing that has remained unchanged, however, is the use of white rice, which Her calls "a staple" of Hmong and most other Southeast Asian cuisine.

"Some Hmong food still tastes plain, but a lot of our recipes were created after our people started coming to America," said Her, who taught herself to cook as a young girl in Thailand before coming to the United States in 1988. "But really, Hmong cooking is something you have to experience and taste for yourself to really understand it."



Landslide kills three Hmong children in Vietnam

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

HANOI, April 27 (AFP) - A landslide triggered by heavy rains has killed three children in their sleep in Vietnam, an official said Tuesday.

The children, all between two and 10 years old, were buried when a massive rock fell on their house in the northern province of Ha Giang on Monday night.

A search is ongoing for the mother and another nine-year-old boy, local district official Nguyen Thi Duoc said, adding that the family was from the Hmong ethnic minority.

Hundreds of people die every year in Vietnam as a result of landslides, heavy rains, floods and typhoons.

The monsoon usually hits the country between July and November, but strong rains at other times of the year also sometimes cause landslides, particularly in remote mountainous areas.



Hmong man, Chai Lee, wins $1 million in lotto game

Monday, April 26, 2010

Sunday, April 25, 2010 — RALEIGH — A man from Albemarle went fishing after getting off work, but his biggest catch of the day was on a “$200 Million Extravaganza” instant scratch-off game.

Chai Lee won $1 million playing the ticket he purchased at Cagle’s Chevron on N.C. 49 in Denton, according to a press release from representatives of the North Carolina Education Lottery (NCEL).

The $1 million prize will be paid as an annuity in $50,000 payments for 20 years. He has already received his first check, which has an after-tax value of $34,006.

He was surprised to win and hasn’t decided how he will spend his prize money, the release stated.

A lottery representative said Lee declined to have his photo taken, release any contact information or schedule a news conference.

The NCEL has paid out more than $5.1 million total in instant scratch-off ticket prizes since Monday.

Lee’s winning is believed to be the largest prize won for a Stanly County resident since the lottery began, with one local individual claiming $200,000 last fall.



Column: Hmong culture is our culture

Did you know that April is Hmong History Month? Wausau has a large Hmong population, about 12 percent of the total population or about 4,700 residents. There are around 50,000 Hmong people in Wisconsin. Hmong people have lived in Wausau since 1976. This is something that makes Wausau so special and unique, it is something great that distinguishes Wausau from the rest of the tens of thousands of U.S. cities.

Is this diversity celebrated? This great culture mixes with the Wisconsin culture to give us our own unique culture here in Wausau. Is it given its proper respect?

With Hmong children making up the majority of the non-Caucasian population, I worry that some teachers in the community are not encouraging their students to learn about the culture. Are teachers promoting and encouraging Hmong History Month?

You would certainly think an institution of higher education like the University of Wisconsin Marathon County would encourage diversity and multiculturalism. I expected to see many posters and signs celebrating this month, so near and dear to the people of Wausau. But I saw nothing of the sort!

That behavior is irresponsible in my eyes, if not dangerous.

Thanks to the Hmong people for promoting themselves as such upright and honorable citizens in Wausau. Thanks to the Hmong people for adding so positively to the few states that have Hmong people. This is what makes Wausau so special and unique. How many people actually spoke with Hmong people before they started selling us all the vegetables we eat in the summer? How many people knew they were farmers? How many people know why they are here and why they came here?

This is an opportunity of a lifetime that I would suggest all the citizens of Wausau to make an effort to understand the Hmong and our own culture here in Wausau. Whether you are black, white, blue Hmong, green Hmong or pink, I recommend that all citizens of Wausau learn about Hmong culture, and your own culture here in Wausau.

Brendan Cotter is a reader from Wausau.



UW-EC student's research leads to Hmong children's book

Mai, the main character of the children's book "The Tiger in the Village," saves her family from a tiger by throwing hot peppers into its eyes. UW-Eau Claire graduate student Pakou Vang published the book in December. UW-Stout art graduate Jesse Edgington used acrylic paint for all of the illustrations.

Pakou Vang's attempt to make the research for her master's degree thesis more reliable prompted an unanticipated-yet-welcome result: the publication of a Hmong children's book.

"The Tiger in the Village," published in December by, tells the story of how family members save themselves from a tiger that invades their village during the Hmong New Year.



Hmong international filmmakers' association formed

By Tom LaVenture, Asian American Press

The Hmong filmmaking community is growing in quantity and quality - and a new organization held its first film festival as part of the International Conference on Hmong Studies earlier this month at Concordia University.

The Hmong International Filmmakers Organization brought filmmakers and films - previews, shorts and feature films - from around the country, China and Thailand for the Hmong International Film Festival.

Lee Pao Xiong, director, Center for Hmong Studies, Concordia University - St. Paul, said the film festival was a success, especially in that the turnout was strong for relatively short notice first annual partnership with HIFO. He also thought the red carpet events were fun for the filmmakers and the fans.

Dr. Jerry Yang, the psychiatrist who turned a temporary layoff from work into a multimillion dollar victory in the 2007 World Series of Poker Championships

Dr. Yang spoke of his "poker face" that includes a baseball cap and dark sunglasses. It is not often that he removes them, but he did long enough to give a moving and inspirational talk to the conference attendees and especially the Hmong filmmakers - encouraging them to first believe in their dreams in order to achieve them.

"This is truly a wonderful and historic moment for the Hmong community, not only those in America but in other parts of world as well," said Yang.

Born in Laos, raised in Thai refugee camps before settling in California in 1983 with his family, Yang graduated class valedictorian in 1986 and went on to earn a doctorat from Loma Linda University. He experienced a layoff from his "dream job" as psychotherapist and clinic director, when he won a series of poker tournaments that eventually led to the WSPC where he won more than $8 million.

Yang said his interest in Hmong filmmakers stems from an invitation to celebrity poker events at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah. He reflected on the Hmong American filmmaking community, of how far they have come, and said he thought, "What if our Hmong people can do something like this?"

He commended the conference for its support of the filmmakers, actors and actresses and made it his goal to convince Hollywood friends from the poker circuit to accept an invitation to attend a future Hmong film festival.

Yang said that the Hmong American filmmakers and actors today are talented pioneers that producing innovative work, and expects to see performers emerge in the mainstream within the next decade or two.

"I truly am happy we actually have a Hmong film festival and a steppingstone learning experience for everybody," said Yang. "I am taking notes and hopefully we can get together in the near future and brainstorm and share ideas and make the festival even better next year."

Hmong filmmakers in attendance included Bryan Vue, Mong Vang, Abel Vang, Moua Lee, Kang Vang and Kao Chang and others.

Formed in 2009 in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, HIFO ( now has a Fresno address but it a national and international network organization Web site.

The founding members state that HIFO's goal is to provide technical assistance and support to improve the quality of Hmong films, along with marketing and distribution in domestic and international markets.

The HIFO directors present said that since the 1980s the Hmong film industry has produced more films per capita that any other immigrant group in the United States outside of Bollywood. This popularity is expected to grow as the young population grows with an appetite for bicultural entertainment that is relevant to their lives.

The earliest films were narratives produced on VHS with no budgets for a Hmong speaking audience. Yet, the films inspired their youngest audience with what they called clever dialogue and good story lines. As Hmong began to return to Thailand they found an opportunity to meet the demand for films made they began to have a marketable appeal.

The overseas trend continues to this day with a stronger interest in films about Hmong in China and the Disapora around the world. It is also possible to shoot a film in five weeks overseas for about one-third the cost of a U.S. production.

Until HIFO there was no structure to the Hmong film industry and they want to address shared interests of illegal copying and selling of their films - which is widespread - especially overseas they said. That hurts when the filmmakers don't make back a $20,000 personal investment and yet they are often reminded how popular the films are and that they are selling.

HIFO is a voice on this and other issues to policymakers and challenges the filmmakers to improve the Hmong filmmaking industry together. The filmmakers said they feel a responsibility to improve storylines and film quality and that HIFO offers funding and training.

"It is still lacking, but we are on the right path and there has been much progress in over two decades of making films," said Bryan Vue, emcee and local Hmong film producer, writer, director and editor who founded Bird's-Eye Vue Films in 2007.

Vue grew up in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, where the late martial arts film icon Bruce Lee was his only boyhood Asian screen role model. He started making films at age 14 and it remained a close passion even after earning a master's degree in psychology and working for 16 years as a social worker at the Wilder Foundation.

His experience working with the Hmong community of Minnesota where the median age is age 16, led Vue to think of films as a way to relate the intangibles of Hmong American life that viewers will identify with and find meaning with their own lives.

On guest said they appreciated that the films are available at the markets, as an alternative to the blockbusters with stars and stories that don't relate to their lives.

Vue said the progression of Hmong films in recent years is shown online, via YouTube and other video sites where the relevance and quality of films now shot in High Definition and with strong performances.

"There is still plenty of room to improve," he added.

Moua Lee spoke of his childhood in the refugee camps, where missionaries would screen cowboy movies to bring more people to the church. He said he relates to youth with an interest in film when they are often discouraged by parents of pursuing such a "risky" passion as a profession.

Lee, like many fellow Hmong filmmakers, said he it was a hobby that eventually took more time and dedication as he improved. He described it as a visual art form capable of telling stories of culture that serves as a powerful tool to move and influence people.

He said first generation Hmong films are often based on ancient stories from the oral tradition or the experience of new generations. He said they are improving with the use of new, affordable digital technologies that make it possible to produce better films than ever before.

"We are in the infancy stage," he added. "We have a strong vision and strong ideas."

The filmmakers spoke about filming on location in Thailand. It was not as much preferable for filming as it was a necessity to make a quality film on a $5,000 budget. They enjoy the Thailand experience said Minnesota is preferable if affordable to filming from the back of a truck in remote mountain areas.

Christopher Grap, director of Production Services for the MN Film Board ( was present with Rebecca Collins, Communications coordinator, were present to make their organization known to the filmmakers. They said the goal is to attract more filmmakers to Minnesota.

They said the MN Film Board serves as a support bridge to the industry to identify professionals, locations and other resources.

"It's great to see this film festival to get off the ground and we encourage Hmong filmmakers to get to other film festivals in the Twin Cities," said Collins.

The Hmong filmmakers encouraged young people to volunteer to be part of filmmaking process. They may find it to be a lot of lifting and bad working hours in all weather conditions, but that is what its all about, they added, and that they would appreciate the work once they see the result on the big screen.



Changing face of Minnesota volunteerism

Friday, April 23, 2010

Immigrant volunteerism sometimes slips under the radar, according to a recently-released study by Dr. Mai Moua, who teaches at the Humphrey Institute and also is associated with Leadership Paradigms. From September 2008 to August of 2009, Moua researched Hmong, Latino and Somali immigrant and refugee communities for the Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration (MAVA).

Hmong, Latino and Somali communities already volunteer but do not call it volunteering. Volunteer activities are part of family and community life, such as helping one's neighbor with a sick child, cooking for guests at funeral, driving to or helping with a doctor appointments.

"MAVA is a state wide volunteer program that provides training and technical knowledge for excellence in leadership." said Mary Quirk, project manager for MAVA. "Volunteerism in the Midwest is the third highest in the nation (percentage of volunteer involvement) with Nevada being first and Nebraska second."

The face of Minnesota has changed over the last 25 years, reflecting a more non-European population. "The annual immigration rate in Minnesota is three times the rate of 25 years ago." according to Dr. Mai Moua from Leadership Paradigms.

Diversity in languages, thinking and cultural practices pose serious challenges to mainstream volunteer organizations as they try to recruit, manage and involve volunteers from immigrant and refugee communities. "Non-profit leaders must expand their involvement to reflect this new face of Minnesota." said Moua.

Relationship building and trust is core to immigrant communities. Hmong relationships are kinship, tribal and clan-based. For Latinos, families and community are at the core of their relationships. And with Somalis, tribal and religious influences are the norm.

The research relied on 29 individual interviews from the Hmong, Latino and Somali communities, and on focus groups, surveys and literature studies. The research summary makes 11 recommendations for non-profit organizations to engage volunteers from immigrant communities including the following:

1. Organizations need to clear about why they want to involve immigrants or refugees.

2. Relationship building is of core importance, not the outcome of the project.

3. Relationships with volunteers should include whole families, not just individuals.

4. Organizations need to learn about barriers to volunteering, and to understand needs for childcare, cultural brokering by children, running family errands, etc.

5. Organzations need culturally competent staff to work with volunteers.

For more information about the research, obtain a full report by contacting

Quirk said, "We need to reflect the wisdom, knowledge, and skills of our population in Minnesota. For those wanting to volunteer is an excellent site with 910 opportunities."



Kao Kalia Yang aptly fulfills highest ideals of Page Scholar program

Twenty-nine years after she was born in a Hmong refugee camp in Thailand, Kao Kalia Yang speaks and writes with a lyrical eloquence in her second language that most people never develop in their first.

It took me 10 minutes to compose that sentence, and about six seconds for Yang to say this: "My daddy said words are meaningless unless they touch the human heart."

I don't remember the last time I felt this intimidated.

Yang's first book, "The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir," published by Coffee House Press, won a Minnesota Book Award last year for memoir/creative non-fiction, and was also voted the Readers Choice Award as the favorite among the 32 finalists.

Yang ably fulfilled the commitment entrusted to her by the nonprofit Page Education Foundation when she was named a Page Scholar in 1999. The Foundation, founded by former Minnesota Vikings great and current state Supreme Court Justice Alan Page in 1988, provides college grants to high school graduates of color while encouraging them to mentor children.

Of the 590 Page Scholars selected for the 2009-10 school year, 64 percent are African or African-American, 21 percent are Asian-American, 12 percent Hispanic and 3 percent American Indian. According to the Foundation, over the years more than 4,000 Page Scholars have spent nearly 300,000 hours on their mentoring tasks.

"Alan and I firmly believe every child deserves an opportunity to learn, and we agree that education is the key to unlocking a world of opportunity, especially for youth of color," said Foundation Board Director Diane Sims Page. "We've seen firsthand how education creates heroes — that is, young people who pursue post-secondary education while volunteering to develop future generations through mentoring.

"We're excited about the ongoing success of the Foundation, and sincerely thank the community for its continued — and increasing — support of our unique organization."

Saturday night, Yang will attend the Foundation's annual "Hometown Heroes" gala and fundraiser at Target Field's Legends Club, beginning at 7 p.m. Tickets are $100 and available through the Foundation website.

The mentoring aspect distinguishes this program. Page Scholars don't just write an essay, ship letters of recommendation to a selection committee, accept a check and go on their merry way. They have a responsibility to help someone others.

A Page Scholarship allowed Yang, a graduate of Harding High on St. Paul's East Side, to attend Carleton College in Northfield and earn a bachelor's degree in American studies. For four years there, she tutored an elementary school-age boy from Mexico, an undocumented alien whose background she found surprisingly similar to hers.

Yang came to the United States as a 6-year-old, along with her parents and older sister, Der. Though Der picked up English quickly, Yang struggled with it until discovering, with the help of a high-school English teacher, a proficiency in writing.

"I saw in him the same story as mine," she said. "The dreams our parents had for us were one and the same."

After Carleton, Yang headed for New York City and graduate work at Columbia University, where she earned a master's in creative non-fiction writing. She will spend the upcoming academic year teaching and writing as an artist-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin in Eau Claire.

At the first gathering of Page Scholars the year she won, Yang said she found encouragement by seeing so many students like her with similar hopes and aspirations.

"It allowed me to dream together with the community, not just alone," she said. "And that had a lot to do with making me the young woman I am."



The St. Paul-based Wilder Foundation broke new ground by choosing a Hmong woman as just its sixth president in 104 years.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

MayKao Hang

MayKao Hang, a St. Paul human services manager and Hmong refugee, has been named president and CEO of the Wilder Foundation.

Hang, who currently directs the foundation's family and children services, will oversee a staff of 450 and an annual budget of $61.7 million.

She will become just the sixth president of the foundation in its 104 years, replacing Tom Kingston, who is retiring.

"The Wilder board of directors, in making a decision to hire someone like me, is signaling to the community that Wilder is responding to changing demographics in the community," said Hang, 37, who immigrated from Laos when she was 4.

Teri Davids, spokesperson for the St. Paul-based foundation, said Hang's appointment is historic. "She's the first woman and the first person of color in our history," Davids said.

The foundation's board unanimously selected Hang and announced her appointment Thursday. "We believe Wilder, as well as the community, will benefit greatly from Ms. Hang's experience, creativity and passion for service," board chair Sandy Kiernat said.

Before joining the Wilder Foundation in 2007, Hang was director of adult services for Ramsey County Human Services and director of resident services for the St. Paul Public Housing Agency.

She has a M.A. in public affairs from the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs and is a candidate for a doctorate in public administration from Hamline University.

Hang grew up in St. Paul and lives in Woodbury with her husband, Lou, and four children. She will assume her new role July 1.

Hang said she plans to continue the direction of the foundation, focusing on services for children, families and the elderly and on community research and leadership. But she hopes to inject some new ideas.

"We're moving into difficult and challenging times in serving vulnerable people in our community," Hang said. "There has to be new and unimagined solutions to problems of human services today."

The Wilder Foundation is the largest operating foundation in the east metro area. It supports health and human services for vulnerable residents, research and community development.



NTC Celebrates Hmong History Month

April is Hmong History Month, and NTC is celebrating with a series of informational classes.

Our own Bao Vang had the chance to play 'professor' for a day at Northcentral Technical College.

The first was about Hmong wedding traditions with our very own Bao Vang.

She shared her experiences, answered questions, and discussed her series "Traditions" which you saw right here on Newschannel 7.

There will be a session on the history of the Hmong language on April 27th and the progress of the Hmong people on April 29th. Both run from 12 to 1 p.m.



Hmong writer tells story of her family

Monday, April 19, 2010

Minnesota-based writer Kao Kalia Yang said her voice was exhausted -- but her heart wasn't -- as she spoke to about 200 people Saturday afternoon at John Muir Middle School in Wausau.

It was Yang's third engagement in Wisconsin this week to speak about her book "The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir," which is about her family's experiences as Hmong refugees living in Minnesota.

The Marathon County Public Library brought Yang to Wausau as a part of its National Library Week celebration. Yang's appearance also coincided with this year's Hmong History Month festivities.

Yang spoke candidly about her childhood, living in refugee camps in Thailand and struggling to fit in to both Hmong and American cultures when her family moved to Minnesota. She also took questions from the audience and spoke about the lessons she tries to impart to students when she speaks at schools across the country.

A teacher in the audience asked Yang whether she should encourage her silent Hmong students to speak in class. For many years as a child, Yang said she did not speak to her family or in school.

Yang recalled one of her teachers who asked her questions without expecting an audible response. Even though Yang never answered out loud, the questions made her think for herself.

Some members of the audience choked back tears as they told Yang how much her book helped them understand the Hmong culture. Yang said she hoped members of the audience would leave with a "little more understanding in their hearts."

Melissa Wilke, 47, of Wausau said the cultural understanding that comes from reading Yang's book is something that is needed in the predominantly Caucausian population of Wausau.

"This was great," Wilke said. "This is something Wausau needs to learn more about."

Wilke said she was assigned to read "The Latehomecomer" for a class she is taking at Northcentral Technical College.

Ong Vang, 30, of Wausau said she plans on reading and reflecting upon the "The Latehomecomer" after hearing Yang speak.

"As a speaker, she is a good role model for Hmong women," Vang said.



Visiting the repatriated Hmong

Foreign press access to Laos is notoriously rare, so when the government invited AFP I was itching to go.
But as our rickety Russian-made helicopter touched down in a remote corner of the People's Democratic Republic, the diplomats and journalists on board knew this was no ordinary press trip.

We were there for a "tour" of a village housing thousands of ethnic Hmong people who were recently kicked out of Thailand, despite fears they would face persecution on their return for fighting in a CIA-backed "secret army" when the Vietnam War spread to Laos.

When Thailand forcibly repatriated around 4,500 Hmong asylum-seekers in December, insisting they were illegal economic immigrants, the move infuriated the international community. The UN had recognised 158 as refugees, and was never allowed to assess if the rest needed protection.

Laos denied that outside access to the group would be difficult, but three months later the few visits permitted to foreign observers had been carefully stage-managed and far from the "free and unfettered access" that rights groups and embassies demanded.

So it was with much scepticism that I accepted the invitation, aware the Laotian regime would do all it could to show that the group were well-treated and glad to be back.

Diplomats I asked thought it was at least a step in the right direction, but activists seemed less convinced.

"It'll be a dog and pony show," a rights worker in Bangkok warned me.

We had just two hours on the ground, most of which was spent in a village hall, where officials told us of grand plans to develop the apparently-contented community.

But a few brave Hmong spotted a rare chance to tell us otherwise.

"I want to go to another country," said one woman (via a diplomat who thankfully could translate) while others tearfully tried to explain their plight as we were ushered away.

Sensing they were losing control, our chaperones lost their cool.

"Everybody get out!" yelled the previously calm and collected foreign ministry spokesman, after pulling me away from the crowd.

So we left without a tour of the village, but a chance to remind outsiders that so long as decent access to these Hmong is still forbidden, they should not be forgotten.



Speaker to talk about growing up Hmong in America

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Maysee Yang Herr, an instructor of educational psychology at the 
University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, discusses a paper with Bethany 
Frederick on Thursday.
Maysee Yang Herr, an instructor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, discusses a paper with Bethany Frederick on Thursday. (Doug Wojcik/For the Wausau Daily Herald)

 When 33-year-old Maysee Yang Herr speaks at the luncheon concluding Hmong History Month, she'll be representing a sort of "sandwich" generation.

Born in Thailand, she didn't experience the traditional Hmong life of Laos, but the influence of her parents and others of previous generations steeped her in Hmong culture. At the same time, the Wausau woman attended American schools and learned American ways that profoundly influenced the choices she made in her life.

Growing up with one foot in the Hmong culture and the other planted in American society wasn't easy. It wasn't until she was in her 20s and attended graduate school in Indiana that she came to terms with her sort of dual identity.

"The second generation of (an immigrant group) always struggles with identity issues," Herr said. "I consider myself part of the 1.5 generation. ... I grew up trying to learn the American culture, but at the same time hold on to the Hmong culture."

Herr will be one of three speakers at the luncheon who exemplify the theme of Hmong History Month, "Our Continuing Journey." Speakers both older and younger than Herr also will speak about their perspective of Hmong culture.

Herr diverted in many ways from a traditional Hmong lifestyle. She didn't marry early, for example, instead choosing, with the support of her parents, to obtain the best education she could. After graduating from Wausau West High School in 1994, she studied psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. She went on to earn a master's degree in educational psychology at Indiana University, and is completing her doctorate in early childhood education through IU. Meanwhile, Herr is an instructor in educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

Being split between two worlds sometimes meant that Herr butted up against both. She chafed as a teenager against some of her parents' restrictions that were tied to Hmong ways. For example, she wanted to go to social events on her own, and she wanted to participate in extracurricular events.

"I was proud of being Hmong, but I felt as though holding onto that Hmong identity was holding me back," Herr said.

Other times, she would feel she would have to defend the Hmong when dealing with classmates in high school.

"By Hmong standards, I was rebellious," Herr said. "I joined cheerleading, joined extracurricular events. ... I guess you could say I fought with my parents through words about the importance of this to my future."

At the same time, "no matter how I tried to fit in, I wasn't Americanized enough," Herr said.

It wasn't until she moved to Indiana and attended graduate school that she found others who felt the same, and learned that she could find a way to be an American, but still be proud to be Hmong and work to preserve Hmong traditions with her children and others.

One of those friends is Daisy Rodriguez Pitel, 38, of Tucson, Arizonna, a Filipino-American who grew up in San Diego. Pitel completely related to Herr's sense of unease with her identity.

"They say the U.S. is a melting pot. It's something I disagree with," said Pitel, who is an administrator at a community college. "We should be able to be an American, but stay true to whatever our cultural upbringing is. ... We can negotiate both identities without sacrificing either one."

Linking with Pitel and other students like her helped Herr become more confident in who she was, and put behind her the doubts and feelings about not fitting in.

They "helped empower me," Herr said. "They helped me find my voice. And I think that is important. I am Asian. I am Hmong. I was accepted in that way. I found I had something to contribute to the Asian community, and had a voice among the mainstream community. That's when I found my voice, and it's been hard to be quiet ever since."



Readers React: Consider Hmong contributions to culture

Friday, April 16, 2010

Learn about Hmong history

The lack of knowledge about Hmong history and culture is not all that surprising -- especially when one takes into account the lack of knowledge many Americans have about any immigrant history and culture other than their own. For that matter, a great many Americans know very little about American history and culture. They accept the common cultural and historical myths as truth.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not claiming to be an expert. I know as little as the next person about Hmong culture and history. However, I do know where they came from and why they are here.

I also know one more thing. My cousin married a young Navy pilot who crashed over the Ho Chi Minh trail. Had it not been for Hmong fighters who found him before the NVA did, there would be one more name on "The Wall."

Assimilation, progress take time

For one group of people to assimilate into another place and culture is a long and convoluted process. When the Hmong began moving here, their first priority was to find a safe place to live. Once that was accomplished, they could move on to the next items on their agenda: housing, education, jobs, learning to speak English and fitting into the community were things that all piled on to the Hmong people at one time.

It was challenging to some and overwhelming to others. They still have a ways to go. Nothing worth doing is easy. But overall, I think the Hmong people are doing quite well. It is an accomplishment that they are holding these festivals. We can support them by attending.

There will always be people who resist change. There were and still are those who don't really want Hmong people to live here. But that bell has been rung. We can no longer send them back from whence they came. Many of the Hmong people living here today have never been to Laos or Thailand, as they were born in the United States. Besides, there is no safe "there" where we can send them back. In fact, I understand there are now more Hmong who need a safe home.

So, be careful. No matter who you are, you might meet someone who could be your friend. You might learn something about another culture. Knowledge is power.



Twin Cities-based Shades of Yellow promoting visibility for Hmong gay and lesbian community

Thursday, April 8, 2010

When Kevin Xiong was living in North Carolina several years ago, he was sure he was the only gay Hmong person in the world.

Then in 2005, a Google search led him to Shades of Yellow, a Twin Cities-based group of Hmong gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer folk — most of whom had also at one time believed they were alone. "That's pretty much everyone I've talked to," Xiong says. "Everybody thought they were the only one."

Xiong was so excited about the group, he traveled to Minnesota to learn more about the organization, which got its start in 2003. At the time, Shades of Yellow — or SOY — was more of a social support network than an activist group, and its members generally tried to keep a low profile.

Since then, however, the group has evolved, revamping its mission statement to include pushing for visibility and acceptance — and Xiong wound up the group's first executive director.

SOY's dual aims are to support LGBTQ folks within the Hmong community and Hmong people within the LGBTQ community. It offers several private support groups to its members, but it also recently announced selections for its new leadership program, which will train 12 individuals in leadership and activism.

Kevin Xiong

This summer, SOY plans to hold a meeting to discuss LGBT issues with parents and elders in the Hmong community. "We're going to have community leaders come in and sort of be the medium between the younger generation and the older generation," Xiong says.

"Hmong parents and elders know what gay is or what lesbian is, but they tend not to talk about it," Xiong says. "It's not a cultural norm." And having children is paramount in Hmong culture, which puts huge pressure on gay and lesbian individuals. "My friend is a doctor, but his parents don't term him successful until he gets married and has kids. Even if he adopts, that's not good enough — they want blood grandchildren."

Xiong has seen progress, but he still gets nasty letters and phone calls — sometimes even death threats. "Especially from parents," he says. "Every other day I receive a call from someone saying, 'You guys shouldn't exist.' "

Xiong recently traveled to Laos and Thailand to study how communities there react to gays and lesbians. He found that people are aware of homosexuality, but they don't like to acknowledge it in their own culture. "In a Hmong village, people would say, 'Oh yeah it exists in the Lao community; it happens in Thailand; we see it on TV.' " But to the follow-up question of whether there are gays and lesbians in the Hmong community, he received a uniform "no."

"I'm like, hello?" Xiong says. "I'm speaking to you in Hmong and I'm flamboyant; have you not noticed?"

Xiong has also observed that Hmong fathers tend to have an easier time accepting gay children than do Hmong mothers. "I think it's because it's the mother's responsibility to raise the child, so it will sort of be seen as her fault if the child becomes gay or different."

Xiong's own mother didn't speak to him for a year after he came out, but now, he says, she's become a great ally.

Xiong clarifies that to SOY, the term "ally" refers not only to straight supporters within the Hmong community, but also to non-Hmong gays and lesbians.

At SOY's annual Hmong New Year's party, Xiong has heard criticism from both sides. "Some people say, 'Oh, it's too Hmong,' and we're like, 'Well we're Hmong,' and some people say, 'Oh, it's too gay' and we say, 'Well, we are gay.' "

"That's something unique about our organization," he adds. "We've been able to incorporate both cultures into the celebration and make it our own."



Hmong repatriates enjoy equality, said Lao Brigadier General

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

(KPL) All Hmong repatriates expressed their delights over their return to the motherland and a normal life in their homeland.

The statement was reported by Brigadier General Bouasieng Champaphanh, President of the Lao-Thai General Border Security-Order Sub-Committee, to Mr TJaco Vanden Hout, the Dutch ambassador to Laos at the Ministry of National Defence on 23 March.

The Dutch Ambassador expressed his wish to pay a visit to the repatriates who are now starting a new life in Phounkham village, Borikhanh district, Borikhamsay province.

Brig. Gen. Bouasieng said that the Lao government and the Lao People’s Army were all aware that some 7,000 illegal Hmong immigrants fleeing to Thailand were deceived to go there. They were lured with a hope for a better and happy life abroad.

In late 2009, these illegal immigrants, totalling 4,508, were repatriated under a bilateral agreement of the governments of Laos and Thailand.

Upon their return, some would like to settle down in their original hometowns. Finally they were sent to their destinations.

The rest have been sent to the development villages provided by the Lao government. These villages are supported by infrastructure for their new life, ranging from houses, water supply, farmland, health centres, to most importantly schools for their children. Up to now, they are now satisfied and quite convinced of their new life, said the Brigadier General.

Brig. Gen. Bouasieng claimed that these repatriates no longer wished to go to a third country. The wish was expressed when they were asked by local authorities.

Source: KPL Lao News Agency
March 26, 2010



Book teaches understanding of Hmong culture

As with every family, culture and country, many stories encompass its history, some privately tucked away and others shared — a means to encourage understanding.

Concordia University Professor Paul Hillmer recently published a book on the experiences of the Hmong, a population that has reached 60,000-70,000 in the state.

The Hmong experienced a surge in immigration into the United States during the mid-1970s in the wake of the Vietnam War, and continue to endure the critical eye of far too many Americans, says Hillmer.

“All of us, whether recently or hundreds of years ago, have immigrants somewhere in our family tree … But somewhere back in our past, whether still recorded or long forgotten, our families underwent experiences that resemble what present-day immigrants and their children are going through now,” says Hillmer.

Hillmer’s book, “A People’s History of the Hmong,” is the result of more than 200 interviews and chronicles the Hmong history, immigration and life experiences. And it all began with a simple question to a Hmong student of Hillmer’s during a car ride to the young man’s intern site.

“I asked him about his father, family, the war, and he said his parents were always busy working and didn’t talk about it much,” said Hillmer.

But the student wanted to learn more about his Hmong history.

Intrigued, Hillmer met with a handful of Hmong students at Concordia and together they created a list of interview questions to discuss with their families.

“The parents were remarkably open and grateful and surprised that their children were taking an interest,” said Hillmer. “That’s what got me hooked — in the process of teaching students, I learned that there is a real story here.”

The process of interviews eventually expanded to include Hmong people from the Twin Cities and Wisconsin to Florida, Washington D.C., the east coast and even Australia; those who have served during war, embassy staff, people young and old.

The book includes first-person accounts of life in the hills of Laos, experiences of war and refugee camps, the trials and triumphs as citizens of new countries, ancient cultural practices and modern-day life existence, and religious beliefs unusually foreign to most people.

“A deeply important book,” says Vint Lawrence, former CIA agent stationed in Laos. “Instead of skimming the glossy highlights of America’s involvement with the Hmong people during the ‘Secret War’ in Laos, Professor Hillmer has given us a stark and vivid picture of the Hmong in the war’s tragic aftermath and ultimately a testament to the strength of these remarkable people.”

Throughout American history, immigrants have suffered indifference, hate and scorn of so-called natives, said Hillmer. But his hope is that through this introduction to the Hmong experience, Americans will both gain understanding and be understanding to a population that is a part of the collective experience.

“Especially in areas like Minnesota where there are so many Hmong, there are so many misunderstandings about who these people are. To quote a colleague, ‘It’s hard to hate someone when you know their story’,” said Hillmer.


WHO: Paul Hillmer, professor of American history and director of the Hmong Oral History Project at Concordia University

WHAT: Discussion of his book “A People’s History of the Hmong”

WHEN: 4 p.m. Thursday in St. Olaf’s Buntrock Commons, Viking Theater

COST: Event is free and open to the public

BUY THE BOOK: St. Olaf Bookstore, $27.95



Students at D.C. Everest Recognize Hmong History Month

Students at D.C. Everest Middle School are recognizing Hmong History Month.

On Tuesday, Hmong students came dressed in traditional outfits.

Student Bright Day Her says, "I'm not afraid. I'm different from other people and I'm not afraid to show it."

Other students took the day to learn more about the culture. "It's what their culture is. I think that's pretty cool," says student Alex Soukup.

Even teachers took part in the day. Social Studies teacher Mr. Yao Yang used it to teach children about Hmong culture.

"The kids don't understand. Even Hmong students don't understand how we, the Hmong people, originated from Southeast Asia," says Mr. Yang.

Leaders say the goal of the day is to make students become more culturally aware and accepting of others.



Laos asked to grant access to Hmong

Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya says he will ask Vientiane to give "free and unfettered" access to Lao Hmong repatriated from Thailand.

He would talk to Laos during the Mekong River Commission (MRC) meeting in Hua Hin early next month.

Mr Kasit unveiled his move after meeting European diplomats, including the envoys of the EU, Switzerland, UK, the Netherlands, and Canada yesterday.

Earlier, the European diplomats raised concerns about the fate of the 4,500 ethnic Hmong deported from Thailand to Laos last December.

The diplomats called for free and unfettered access to the Hmong returnees.

"It is now March and we have not been granted free and unfettered access, especially to the 158 Lao Hmong from Nong Khai.

"The Netherlands, the US, Canada and Australia have offered them resettlement," said EU ambassador David Lipman.

"Concerning these 158 refugees, we want to ask them about their needs, including their wishes for resettlement."

Mr Kasit said he had spoken to Lao authorities about access, but would raise the matter again at the MRC meeting.

Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam, which share the Mekong River, will meet in Hua Hin, Prachuap Khiri Khan between April 2 to 5 to discuss water resources management and other development matters.

Vientiane yesterday took about 20 diplomats, mostly based in Laos, including the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) representative and US ambassador, and a group of foreign journalists to visit the Hmong resettlement village in Borikhamxay, about 225km from the capital.

The excursion was also joined by Thai diplomats and UN officials.

Lao representatives told visitors about how the government was resettling 4,500 Hmong in the village.

Foreign diplomats asked questions to see if the Hmong would be allowed free and unrestricted contact with the outside world, including relatives, said a diplomatic source.

"The Hmong indicated that they wanted to leave Laos. Some were crying, but there was not enough time to talk in depth with the individuals."

Another diplomatic source said the visit by Western diplomats had given the Hmong hope that they would be allowed to resettle overseas.

However, he believed it was unlikely that repatriation of the 158 Hmong with so-called person of concern status would come about. "Laos has tried to put in place the necessary infrastructure and wants to see them living here rather than going elsewhere," the source said.



Envoy raises fears for Hmong in Laos

Monday, April 5, 2010

BANGKOK: Australia's ambassador to Laos has been allowed to briefly visit the Hmong refugees formerly destined for Australia before they were forced into a refugee camp in the remote interior of the country.

But Michele Forster was only given limited access to the Hmong under strict military supervision late last month.

The refugees appear no closer to being allowed to leave the country they have already fled once.

''We are disappointed access to returnees … was limited,'' a spokeswoman for the Department of Foreign Affairs said.

''We reiterate the government's deep concern and disappointment at the forced repatriation of Laos Hmong [and] are concerned for the welfare of the broader group.''

Historically a hill-tribe, the Hmong have faced generations of persecution in Laos - including detention in ''re-education'' camps, land dispossession and execution - since members of their ethnic minority fought alongside American troops in the Vietnam War.

In December the Thai army forcibly removed more than 4500 Hmong asylum seekers who had fled across the border into Thai refugee camps, sending them back to Laos.

Only 158 of those had been allowed to see the United Nation's human rights agency while in Thailand. All were found to be genuine refugees with legitimate fears of persecution in Laos. Australia was working to resettle 47 of them and 17 had been granted humanitarian Australian visas.

''We remain committed to resettling this group,'' the foreign affairs spokeswoman said. ''We urge the government of Laos to allow independent international access to the returned Hmong, and the resettlement of those with valid visas who still wish to leave Laos.''

But the Lao government says the refugees, having been returned to Laos, do not want to be resettled elsewhere.

''All the returnees are calm and stable and satisfied that they have returned to live in their home country again,'' the Laos army's deputy chief, Brigadier General Bouasieng Champaphan, said.

But, even as he was speaking, a Lao woman whispered to the diplomats: ''I want to go to another country; I don't feel good here in the village.''

Human rights groups say the asylum seekers have been pressured to sign forms that say they are happy to live in Laos.

''We received several credible reports that they had to sign printed documents saying that they didn't want to leave, and that at least some of them felt forced to sign,'' said Brittis Edman of Amnesty International.



Hmong culture continues to evolve

WAUSAU -- More than 60 people turned out Saturday for an event to celebrate the start of the seventh annual Marathon County Hmong History Month.

The event, organized by the Wausau Area Hmong Mutual Association, was at the Wausau Center mall. The festivities featured singing, traditional dances and trivia about the history of the Hmong culture.

"The purpose of Hmong History Month is to celebrate the Hmong history, culture and traditions since we have such a large presence in Marathon County," said Peter Yang, executive director of the Wausau Area Hmong Mutual Association and a member of the Hmong History Month planning committee.

The kickoff also featured a raffle and a rundown of events happening this month.

Sang Her, 19, of Rib Mountain said that he was pleased with the event's turnout and that he would like to see more events throughout the rest of the year.

"Wausau has so many Hmong people now, and events like this one show that we are just here to live and to make friends," Her said. "The more events there are, the more people will get to know us."

Theresa Bootz, 51, of Wausau said her favorite part of the kickoff was the traditional dancing done by groups of local middle school and high school students, who also donned Hmong regalia.

"The dancing itself is educational. They were so impressive, and it made me want to learn more about the culture," Bootz said.

The dancing, as well as the other activities offered at the kickoff, helped reflect this year's theme of "Our Continuing Journey," Yang said.

"When we look at the past, or even the present, we see that our people and our culture are going through a constant transition. Our culture started a long time ago, and continues to evolve even today," Yang said.



Hmong-American patriot recognized by Air Force chief of staff

Friday, April 2, 2010

Hmong-American patriot recognized by Air Force chief of staff Yia Kha holds a certificate of appreciation he received from Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz during a ceremony March 31, 2010, in the Pentagon's Airmen's Hall. Mr. Kha received a certificate of appreciation from General Schwartz for his role in aiding forward air controllers during the Vietnam War. (U.S. Air Force photo/Scott Ash)

Hmong-American patriot recognized by Air Force chief of staff Yia Kha listens as Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz says a few words during a ceremony March 31, 2010, in the Pentagon's Airmen's Hall. Mr. Kha received a certificate of appreciation from General Schwartz for his role in aiding forward air controllers during the Vietnam War. (U.S. Air Force photo/Scott Ash)

4/2/2010 - WASHINGTON (AFNS) -- Presumed dead for decades, a Royal Laotian Air Force fighter pilot received recognition from the Air Force's top uniformed officer here March 31 for his contributions during the Vietnam War.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz presented Yia Kha with a certificate of appreciation for his role aiding forward air control operations for seven years.

Much of his time served was during extensive combat operations, in which Mr. Kha's aircraft often sustained heavy anti-aircraft fire. In spite of this, then 1st Lt. Kha returned to the air over the battlefield to stave off the enemy and save the lives of fellow Laotian and American comrades.

General Schwartz described Mr. Kha's courageous rescue efforts while stationed at Long Tieng as "nothing less than heroic." He performed his duties faithfully despite bad weather, dangerous mountain terrain and constant ground fire.

"His intellect, loyalty to the mission and, most importantly, courage ... are certainly traits that we in our Air Force will always cherish," the general said.

The general shared the story of the Ravens, a group of American Cessna O-1 Bird Dog pilots in Laos. In slow, low-flying aircraft, the Ravens' job was to find the target, call up fighter-bombers, mark targets with smoke rockets, control the operation and make bomb damage assessments.

Supporting these Ravens was a handful of Hmong soldiers like Mr. Kha, who served as "backseater" aircrew. Known as Robins, the general said, these individuals learned English to translate radio messages. They also gained the rudimentary flying skills so they could land the planes in case the pilot became unconscious. The Hmong are a group of people indigenous to the mountains of Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar.

General Schwartz compared the relationship between the Hmong counterparts and forward air controllers surveilling targets in unarmed aircraft to the modern-day mission of remotely piloted aircraft.

"Think about today's RPAs that use operators and sensors to find targets and communicate with ground control; they're not all that different," General Schwartz said.

Craig Duehring, the former Air Force assistant secretary of the Air Force for manpower and Reserve affairs, was Raven 27, a forward air controller who flew alongside Mr. Kha. Mr. Duehring shared an emotional account of his time with Robin 9, Mr. Kha, from September 1968 to December 1970.

In an excerpt from a letter to General Schwartz requesting a way to formally recognize his fellow Airman, he recounted, "I got to know all the Robins quite well ... but Yia Kha stood out from all the rest. He seemed to be with me every time we had a man on the ground or things got scary. The day I earned my Silver Star, I had another backseater with me. We got shot up a bit and were scared within an inch of our lives."

Mr. Duehring said he raced back to base to refuel and rearm after the skirmish.

"As soon as I hit the ground, the first backseater ran for his house, badly shaken," he said. "I knew I needed to return to the hotly contested area and needed a backseater. They all disappeared, except for one: Yia Kha, who appeared by the aircraft and said 'Raven 27, I will go with you.' And he did. Years ago, I was told by a Hmong acquaintance that my friend, Yia Kha, had died in a helicopter crash during bad weather and for years I mourned his loss at the annual Raven reunions. I (recently) learned he was alive and living in southern Pennsylvania. I got his phone number and that call was unforgettable."

During the years that he was out of touch with Mr. Duehring and other Ravens, Mr. Kha actually went on to pilot training in Thailand and flew AT-28 aircraft in support of Laotians and Americans. Mr. Kha soon escaped Laos only to volunteer to continue helping his Hmong brethren in Thailand camps.

He and his wife, Bee, later gained citizenship in the U.S., where a church group sponsored them. The church group also helped Mr. Kha find employment in a metal shop where he still works today.

Mr. Kha expressed gratitude and humility as he addressed ceremony attendees.

"All that I've done for my family, friends and country comes from my desire to do my best," Mr. Kha said. "I thank God for saving my life and (am grateful that) through these years, my family and I found freedom, peace and jobs."


Australian envoy meets Hmong refugees

Australia's ambassador to Laos has been allowed to visit briefly the Hmong refugees formerly destined for Australia before they were forced into a refugee camp in the remote interior of the country.

But ambassador Michele Forster was given only limited access to the Hmong under strict military supervision on Friday last week and the refugees appear no closer to being allowed to leave the country they have already fled once.

''We are disappointed that access to returnees … was limited,'' a Department of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman told The Age.

''We reiterate the government's deep concern and disappointment at the forced repatriation of Laos Hmong [and] are concerned for the welfare of the broader group.''

Historically a hill tribe, the Hmong have faced generations of persecution - including detention in ''re-education'' camps, land dispossession and execution - in communist Laos since members of their ethnic minority fought alongside US troops in the Vietnam War.

In December, the Thai army forcibly removed more than 4500 Hmong asylum seekers who had fled across the border into Thai refugee camps and sent them back to Laos.

Only 158 of those had been allowed to see the UN's human rights agency while in Thailand. All were found to be genuine refugees.

Australia was working to resettle 47 of that group; 17 had already been granted humanitarian visas to live in Australia.

''We remain committed to resettling this group. We urge the government of Laos to allow independent international access to the returned Hmong, and the resettlement of those with valid visas who still wish to leave Laos,'' the spokeswoman said.

After promising to grant unfettered access within 30 days to resettling countries such as Australia and to the UN, the Laos government reneged and Friday's brief visit was the first contact Australia has been allowed. Ms Forster's visit was as part of a group of diplomats, UN officials and selected media taken to the camp for about two hours by Lao authorities. The group was closely guarded and not allowed to speak privately with the refugees.

The Lao government says the refugees, having been returned to Laos, now do not want to be resettled elsewhere.

''All the returnees are calm and stable and satisfied that they have returned to live in their home country again,'' the Laotian army's deputy chief, Brigadier General Bouasieng Champaphan, told the visiting group.

But even as he spoke, a middle-aged woman whispered to the diplomats, ''I want to go to another country, I don't feel good here in the village.''

Human rights groups say the asylum seekers have been pressured to sign forms that say they are happy to live in Laos.

Brittis Edman of Amnesty International said: ''We received several credible reports that they had to sign printed documents saying that they didn't want to leave, and that at least some of them felt forced to sign.''

The refugees are being kept, under military guard, at a camp at Phonekham in central Laos. The camp is in an isolated, mountainous area and the single road to it is almost impassable (the visiting group was flown in by helicopter).

There are allegations the Hmong are not being properly cared for.

Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch said: ''We have received reports of people getting rice, but very little else, in terms of food and that medical care is completely inadequate.''



Rare glimpse of Hmong in Laos fails to quell concerns

Lao Hmong hill tribe villagers watch as foreign media and 
diplomats visit the village of Phongkham in Bolikhamsai province on 
March 26, 2010 where some 3,000 Lao Hmong were resettled after recently 
being deported from Thailand.

PHONKHAM VILLAGE, Laos (AFP) - A small, woollen-hatted woman, one of thousands of ethnic Hmong recently expelled from Thailand, creeps up to the row of rare foreign visitors in her new Laotian village.
Lao Hmong hill tribe villagers watch as foreign media and diplomats visit the village of Phongkham in Bolikhamsai province on March 26, 2010 where some 3,000 Lao Hmong were resettled after recently being deported from Thailand.

"I want to go to another country," she whispers to the diplomats and journalists, who have been invited by the communist government for a tightly-monitored trip to this remote, newly-built community.

"I don't feel good here in the village," says the 50-year-old, while the Laotian army's deputy chief, Brigadier General Bouasieng Champaphan, is delivering a rather different message to the audience.

"All the returnees are calm and stable and satisfied that they have returned to live in their home country again," he says. "They are very pleased and satisfied with the government's assistance."

Thailand faced a barrage of international criticism in December when it used troops to forcibly repatriate about 4,500 Hmong from camps in the country's north back to Laos, despite concerns of persecution on their return.

The Hmong's fear of retribution from the Laotian regime is a lingering remnant of the Vietnam War, when members of the ethnic hill tribe fought in a US-funded irregular army as the conflict secretly spilled into Laos.

After the communists took power in 1975, some Hmong hid in the jungle and fought a low-level insurgency against the regime. Hundreds of thousands of Lao and Hmong fled the country.

Though Thailand insisted all the Hmong recently sent back to Laos were illegal economic migrants, the United Nations recognised 158 of them as refugees, but was never allowed to assess if the thousands of others needed international protection.

While diplomats say there have been no reports of mistreatment, suspicions remain about the Hmong's rights and living standards in Phonkham village, which was built specifically for the group in central Bolikhamsay province.

"They've put them on a Laos equivalent of a desert island," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch. "There's no sustained access to these people or quality of access."

Laotian officials said 3,457 of the repatriated Hmong were sent to Phonkham, while others went back to their home towns.

Laos said it would grant the international community's request for "free and unfettered" access to the returnees within 30 days of their repatriation, but so far visits have been scarce, brief and strictly monitored.

On the latest two-hour visit Friday, foreign diplomats, reporters and a few UN representatives were among those escorted in two helicopters from the Laotian capital Vientiane, a 45-minute flight away.

The delegation was ushered straight to an unfinished village hall to be greeted by smiling youngsters in traditional Hmong dress, before a briefing by central government and Phonkham officials.

"In the beginning of their resettlement... they were afraid because of not being familiar with their new environment and not understanding the Lao government's policies," said Bounthan Douangtanya of the village administration committee.

"But the authorities have conducted an education course for these returnees in order to... make them understand the policy regulations," he said, before detailing plans to develop the village infrastructure.

Diplomats were given a brief but revealing chance to question the 300 or so Hmong gathered in the hall.

How many had been outside of the village since arriving? One hand went up in response. How many had received money, parcels or anything else from contacts outside the village? Two. How many had yet received ID cards or official registration? None.

As the meeting ended, several of the Hmong approached their visitors, saying they wanted to leave. "I want to go to Canada," one 16-year-old girl told AFP, in English, as tears welled in her eyes.

She said she was one of the 158 recognised refugees who have been offered resettlement in Canada, the United States, Australia and the Netherlands. Embassies have been told by Laos that these people now want to stay.

One diplomat on the trip said that the Hmong who "explicitly" expressed a desire to leave "seemed to be demonstrating courage in coming to talk to us, despite the best efforts of the authorities to stage-manage the situation".

But the visit was "altogether not too bad," another Western diplomat said. "Obviously the transparency of the dialogue was limited," he added.

Brigadier General Bouasieng said foreign countries willing to assist the village should contact the government in Laos, which is one of Asia's poorest countries.

There are hopes that such aid, if allowed, would facilitate more openness about the Hmong.

"I think (the Laotian authorities) are going to struggle to support them. The trade-off is: if they want donations, they must give access," said Robertson of Human Rights Watch.

Rights groups say they have serious concerns about availability of clean water, food and medical treatment for the group.
"As long as access is strictly scripted and stage-managed, visitors will not be able to assess the well-being of the returnees," said Brittis Edman of Amnesty International.



Census challenges Hmong

Thursday, April 1, 2010

WAUSAU (WAOW)--Radio DJ hosts at WNRB-LP, Chong Ku Thow and Karl Tza Kow Thoj, use their airways to connect with Southeast Asians in Wausau, about 6,000 people.

Lately, they use the show to talk about the US Census. The DJs work with the Wausau Area Hmong Association to help the Hmong community understand how to fill it out the Census form and why it's important.

The Census helps the government divvy up more than $400 billion in federal aid. It comes once every ten years. That's why it can be confusing for people who've moved to this country within the last decade. The Hmong Association offers one-on-one Census help to clear up the confusion.

"The Census taker is a Hmong individual from the community so he can speak Hmong pretty well and he can help translate some of the information if people need to," The Executive Director of the Hmong Association, Peter Yang.

Diversity officials posted oversized questionnaires in Hmong for citizens to reference. If that's not enough, the Neighbor's place in Wausau offers Census Forms in multiple languages.The organization's director says people who aren't familiar with the Census sometimes throw away the form, thinking it's junk mail. That's basically throwing away $1,200 for our community.

Fortunately, Census takers help ensure that everyone is counted. Pretty soon they'll be knocking on doors of people who did not fill out the form.