Refugee coordinator, family receive honor
So Thao is a case worker in the Green Bay diocesan offices
Second in a monthly series
By Linda DeVries
By the time So Thao was 26 years old, he had experienced more challenges than most people do in a lifetime. As a lieutenant in the Laotian military, he served as a forward and guide for U.S. and Lao forces. When the Communists took over in May, 1975, So became a POW for four years.
Four years later he made his way to a refugee camp in Thailand, where he worked in the Refugee Section of the U.S. Embassy. During this time he met and married Pai Lo, and the next year they, along with So's brother, came to Beaver Dam to join other relatives who had settled in Wisconsin. Later the Hmong couple moved to Madison, where Barbara Biebel, director of Resettlement and Immigration Services, recruited So to work for the Green Bay Diocese.
Now, halfway around the globe, So has found a home in the Green Bay area, where he uses his life experiences to help others who have come to the United States as refugees or immigrants.
As a case manager in the Green Bay Diocese's Refugee and Immigration Programs, So counsels new arrivals and helps them with basic needs. His work is funded in part through the annual Bishop's Appeal being taken up in parishes across the diocese.
So's duties include recruiting volunteers in local parishes to help refugees by lining up housing, food, clothing, employment, education for their children, direction to community agencies, and so on.
Pai works as a bilingual teachers' aide at Howe Elementary School in Green Bay.
The Thao family was honored last month as a recipient of the Green Bay YWCA's Family of Distinction Award. They were nominated by Biebel.
"I've known them since the early 1980s," Biebel said, "when they had only one child, a toddler. I've seen them have their family and raise their children to be responsible and independent, involved in school and extracurricular activities. They have taught their children to respect and reverence their own culture and their extended family. At the same time the children also have American mannerisms and a variety of peer groups. They are kids with their feet in both cultures. So and Pai have nourished these attitudes."
Yet So said his children -- like many Americans -- don't fully understand what his life was like in Laos and all he lived through there.
Their daughter Parisha, now a freshman at UW-Madison, was valedictorian and Homecoming queen of her high school class. Sons Kowki and Futo are still in high school.
The family owns acreage near Denmark, where they raise chickens and have a large garden that other Hmong use to raise traditional food.
"So and Pai seem at ease with all the commotion that occurs from being trusted leaders and making their property available to so many," Biebel said.
So said he values his position in the diocese's Refugee Program, where he is able to help others achieve their dreams of freedom and improved conditions for their families.
"In my job I help diverse groups of refugees," So said. "It used to be that 95% of the refugees were Hmong, but now we see people from Bosnia and many other places. When refugees are admitted to the United States, it is because their lives would be in danger in their homeland because of their race, religion, public opinion, nationality, or some other reason. The term refugee is a legal description of their status and entitles them to receive federal benefits. Immigrants, on the other hand, enter the United States with an immigration visa and are entitled to work, but not receive government assistance.
"In the Immigration Program," So continued, "we direct immigrants to whatever benefits they are entitled to. We help with reunification, bringing family members here legally. We also help U.S.-born citizens who are married to someone abroad petition for them to come here. Our counseling service helps with the entire process of obtaining a visa."
"So is respectful of other people and their cultures," Biebel said. "He works well with Bosnian and Somali refugees as well as those from Southeast Asia who come to him for help. He is very patient and has a wonderful sense of humor."
Because both So and Pai work with people from many lands, they have been studying Spanish to better communicate with their growing number of Spanish-speaking clients and students.
So and Pai were baptized into the Catholic Church when their children were young. Having practiced animism most of their lives, turning to Christianity was a significant step for them. They attend St. Jude's Hmong Mass as part of the Hmong Catholic community in the Green Bay area.