The Compass: Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay
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September 15, 2000 Issue
Local News

After 21 years, families reunite in USA

Last Hmong refugees expected to settle in Green Bay arrive

By Rebecca Weiss
Compass Intern

When the 11 members of the two Thao families were greeted last week at Austin Straubel International Airport in Green Bay, is was not a typical reunion of relatives.

Some family members had never even met before.

The arrival in Green Bay marked more of a start than the end of a journey, because these two Hmong families came here as refugees to begin a new life.

But it also was an end - both of their journey and a quarter-century old program for displaced Hmong families forced to flee their native land after the Vietnam War.

For almost 25 years the Green Bay Diocese has been helping resettle Hmong refugees driven from their homeland in Southeast Asia. About 4,500 Hmong were resettled in communities throughout Northeast Wisconsin through collaborative efforts of church groups, relatives and diocesan staff.

On Sept. 7, this era ended as the diocese's Refugee, Migration and Hispanic Services Department welcomed what will probably be the last two Hmong families from the refugee camp of Napho in Thailand. Exhausted by the long travel, the families were given an emotional greeting by their relatives. It was the first reunion after 21 years in the refugee camp.

The Hmong originally lived in the northern mountains of Laos, the Southeast Asian country bordering on Cambodia, Vietnam, China, Thailand and Burma. It is among the 42 poorest countries of the world. Laos has a population of 5.4 million, 400,000 of whom are Hmong.

The CIA recruited the Hmong during the Vietnam War to rescue American airmen shot down over Laos and to sabotage communist operation along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The Trail ran through Laos and was the principal communist supply line between North and South Vietnam.

This rural, semi-nomadic tribe has suffered persecution since 1975, when CIA support was withdrawn from Laos after the Vietnam War. North Vietnam took over Laos, establishing the Lao People's Democratic Republic (LPDR), ruled by the communist Pathet Lao movement.

Some Hmong groups estimate that 300,000 Hmong and other highland groups have been killed in the past 25 years, in addition to numerous human rights violations in Laos. However, these figures cannot be substantiated.

Hundreds of thousands of Hmong have fled Laos since the mid 1970s, going first to refugee camps in Thailand, before being resettled in the U.S., France, Australia, Canada, Guyana, and Thailand.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees no longer considers a return to Laos to be a threat to the Hmong's lives. Thailand is not willing to grant the Hmong asylum anymore, so many Hmong have been forced to return to Laos.

The U.S. State Department is now granting refugee status to few Hmong, making the two Hmong families who came to Green Bay last week possibly among the last of the Hmong to come to the United States as refugees.

When asked if he ever would like to return to his native country of Laos, Seng Thao, one of the refugees, answers "I do not want to think about that now. Right now I want to do everything I can to create a better life for my family in the United States." The family's greatest desire, he says, is freedom.

About 40,000 Hmong, legal refugees as well as U.S. citizens, reside in Wisconsin. Approximately 300,000 live in the U.S., mainly in Wisconsin, Minnesota and California.

Because of the drastic change of environment and life style, it is difficult for the Hmong to adapt to America. But So Thao, refugee services coordinator for the Green Bay Diocese, says integration of the Hmong has been largely successful in the past. The main feat is to overcome the language barrier, especially for older family members.

Dan Lee, a Hmong who came to the U.S. as a refugee in 1979, is now systems administrator in the communications department of the Green Bay Diocese. He remembers very well the emotional ordeal of leaving family and friends behind at the refugee camp and facing an unknown future. "You did not know what lay ahead. You had an idea what to expect, but it was all uncertain," he reflects.

The parishes of St. Matthew in Green Bay and Ss. Edward and Isidore in Flintville are co-sponsoring the two Hmong families. Both have relatives in the Green Bay area, who will assume major responsibility. The sponsors help them with basic needs and to attain the ultimate goal of independence.

The Thao families seem to be settling in quite well. They are living with their relatives for now. Seng Thao believes he and his family will soon regard the U.S. as home.

As United Nations and U.S. government priorities change, the Refugee, Migration and Hispanic Services department will help resettle refugee groups considered most vulnerable and at-risk. There are approximately 20 million refugees in the world today.

This year, with help of parish co-sponsors, the diocese hopes to resettle about 120 of the estimated 90,000 people destined for the U.S. refugee resettlement program.

Despite all the hardships, Dan Lee always bears in mind the ideal for which he endured them: "I wanted freedom. Above all, there is freedom."

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