In the Spotlight

News & Features
Portrait: Ma Lee
By Lynette Nyman
March 12, 1999
Click for audio RealAudio 3.0 28.8
Part of This Is Home: The Hmong in Minnesota

The secret war in Laos ended in 1975 when communist forces took control of the government. They considered the Hmong enemies of the state and planned to wipe them out for siding with Americans against the Pathet Lao and the North Vietnamese. So the Hmong ran for their lives.

Many fled across the borders to refugee camps. Others hid in the jungles of Laos. Ma Lee was one of them. For five years she ate dirt and the pith from banana trees to survive. She was sleeping in the jungle with her husband and children when North Vietnamese troops showed up. They killed one of her two sons.

Lee: There were bullets flying everywhere. I mean, we could feel them going by our ears. There were so many bullets. It's like the bullets hit us here and there, but it was like it didn't go through us or didn't hit us at all.

When the Vietnamese came, they shot my son right here and down to here. He died in my arms and he was six-years old. I didn't want to let him go, but the Vietnamese people kept telling me to let go of him and I wouldn't. So they beat me and they took the point of the gun and they poked my back. Until this day, I still have a scar in my back.

I was so hurt. I didn't care if I died. I fell to the ground and didn't care if I died. They pulled me up and they told me to go with them. They took us to Long Cheng. We were held there for nine months.

I'm very, very hurt. It breaks my heart right here every time I tell the story. The story breaks my heart and I cry.

When we were in Long Cheng, we were fighting them and I was resisting them. I was resisting because I was hurting inside that I lost my child. So I was resisting them so they gave me a shot right here. And my eyebrows, my eyes, my whole face was swollen and by the time I got well, I shed all the old skin off. My eyebrows came off. I was losing my hair and everything.

When we were there, they kept us in the camp for nine months. They wouldn't feed us any salt and they gave us rice to eat; small amounts, like this amount. It doesn't matter how much rice they have left over, they give us a small amount. Whatever was left over was thrown away.

The Vietnamese told us we had to go and farm. So, we went and farmed. And that's how we escaped. We ran away from them to a town called Na Sou. And then from there, in 1981, we went to Thailand.
Ma Lee and her husband lived in refugee camps in Thailand for 14 years. It was a long time, but she says the pain of losing her son and the hope of going back to Laos kept her there.
Lee: I miss the most when we get ready to farm and we carry that basket to the farm. Then when it's time to come home, we carry that basket. That's what I miss the most.

Do you want to see my basket?
The basket is bamboo with black straps, like an oversized backpack. It's wide mouth makes it easy to toss fresh-picked crops over the shoulder and straight into the basket. Ma Lee demonstrates as she talks.
Lee: I brought it with me from home. Some days when I'm here and I'm depressed or I miss my way of life, I carry it on my back and I walk around the house with it. I miss my homeland very much.
Ma Lee says her life in America is lonely. She stays home all day watching her grandchildren and sewing story-quilts to sell at soccer games and public celebrations. She's doing her best to survive in a new country; one she finds foreign and stressful. But even in her loneliness and sorrow, there's a spark and an energy in her face.