Shoua Vang, Hmong leader and helper

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

He rescued downed American pilots in Vietnam and later helped make St. Paul one of the largest immigrant centers for Hmong refugees fleeing southeast Asia.

After helping rescue downed American pilots during the Vietnam War, Shoua Vang brought his family to St. Paul and was instrumental in helping thousands of fellow Hmong settle in Minnesota.

Vang worked for more than 20 years as an interpreter and caseworker at the International Institute of Minnesota, helping settle more than 10,000 Hmong, said executive director John Borden, who worked with him.

Vang, 65, died Friday at his Hugo farm from a recent stroke and other ailments.

"He was an extraordinary connection for the Hmong community and the host community of St. Paul and Minnesota, because we learned so much from him," said George Latimer, who was St. Paul's mayor during the heavy Hmong migration of the 1980s. He said Vang played a major role in helping St. Paul gain one of the nation's largest Hmong populations.

"He had a wonderful ability to communicate, with limited language facility, with the host community -- so people had great trust in him," Latimer added. "He was a real bridge builder for the incoming community."

Borden started at the institute about a month after Vang was hired in 1978, and together they developed the Hmong resettlement program.

"He had a key role in resettlement. He did a lot of outreach to the Hmong community," Borden said. He said Vang worked tirelessly to make sure that Hmong refugees found housing, jobs and social services, and sometimes delivered 40-pound bags of rice to feed them. Vang also told Hmong how to file papers to bring family members here from Laos.

"He had a real charming personality," Borden said. "He was about 4-foot-10 and had a huge smile. Kids were drawn to him. He was a very kindly person." As a former major in the Royal Laotian Army, Vang had connections to Gen. Pao Vang, a revered Hmong leader, and that contact made Shoua Vang "a magnet for other Hmong in the Twin Cities," Borden said.

In fact, when the institute wanted to disperse the concentration of Hmong in St. Paul, it opened an office in north Minneapolis and stationed Vang there several days a week. Hmong immigrants began settling near that office, Borden said.

According to Borden, one of his sayings was: "Americans always want to push paper, not people. My job is to push people."

Youa Her said her father bought a Hugo farm in the 1980s for use by members of his clan. He continued to raise chickens and crops on the 70-plus-acre farm after he retired because of diabetes and health problems around 2001. She said he regretted having spent so little time with his six children when they were growing up but spent lots of time with his grandchildren, who loved going to his farm.

Her father was a charismatic person who liked helping people and who inspired her to move from a business job into one serving people, including working on a nursing degree, said Her, of Woodbury.

She added: "His legacy to me was one of endurance. It was about overcoming obstacles and hardships and becoming a better person during the process. It was also about helping others and raising them up so that they could have a chance at a better life."

In addition to his daughter Youa Her, Vang is survived by his wife, Mee Xiong, two sons, Nhia of Hugo and Kou of St. Paul, three other daughters, Jou Xiong of Dacula, Ga.; Mae Kirby of St. Paul and Plua Vang of Hugo; two brothers, Peng and Kou, both of St. Paul; a sister, Mao of St. Paul, and seven grandchildren.

A traditional Hmong funeral, open to all, will be held from July 2 through the morning of July 5 at Legacy Funeral Home, 255 Eaton St., St. Paul.


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