|The Hmong in Minnesota|
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St. Paul, Minn. — One of the biggest advantages that the newly-arriving Hmong refugees will have is other Hmong here to welcome them. Cheu Lee, the publisher of the Hmong Times, says when his family came to the United States in 1976, it was a lonely arrival.
"When we first arrived here in America, we had no Hmong waiting at the airport. We had no relatives to greet you at the airport or at home --just yourself. And here, the newcomers we'll be greeted at the airport" he said.
Lee says friends and family will help the new-arrivals learn their way around -- literally and figuratively. For example, they won't have to figure out where to get staples of the Hmong diet such as rice and hot peppers like the first wave did. Hmong grocery stores have popped up all over the Twin Cities in the past 30 years.
Tzianeng Vang, 35, the chairman of Hmong Nationality Archives in Saint Paul, says he and his cousins are expecting about 20 family members to resettle in the Twin Cities by the end of the year. He says the new arrivals won't be coming out of a cultural vacuum. He says they've had exposure to urban life and American culture through relatives already living here. Vang says that wasn't the case when his family resettled in the U.S. in 1980, when he was about 10 years old.
When we first arrived here in America, we had no Hmong waiting at the airport. We had no relatives to greet you at the airport or at home. Just yourself. And here, the newcomers we'll be greeted at the airport.
"When we came we pretty much just came right out of the jungle, basically, and no exposure to technology nor urban lifestyle. So our mind frame or thinking cap was hunt and gather," he said.
Most of the first wave had few skills other than farming. Vang says some of these refugees have skills, such as jewelry-making, watch repair or sewing. And, Vang says, they have access to technology. In fact, some of them are keeping in touch with their relatives here by e-mail. Vang says his cousin e-mails him whenever he has questions about the resettlement. And Vang says when he traveled to the camp back in March he saw for himself how technology has changed the lives of many of the refugees in southeast Asia.
"Both in Thailand and Laos you can buy a cellphone off the street market and just start calling. You just use the calling card, you have a cellphone right there. Everybody that has a few dollars is able to own a cell phone," he said. But there are obstacles too. The "Wat," the Buddhist temple in Thailand north of Bangkok where these refugees have been living, is not an official refugee camp. As a result, the Hmong there have received few services from relief agencies, limited medical attention and little education. Few of the refugees speak English.
Tru Thao owns the Cedarhurst Mansion in Cottage Grove. He remembers how difficult it was for him when he resettled in the U.S. in 1975.
"The hardest part for me was going to school and not speaking a word of English. I was put into the 5th grade. And I probably did not know what my teachers and peers were saying. I was very desperate to use the bathroom," he said.
Thao says he used to run two miles home after school every day to go to the bathroom because he didn't know the English words to tell his teacher.
About half of the 15,000 refugees living at the Wat are school-age children. About 2,500 new Hmong students could enroll in the Saint Paul public schools by the end of the year. School officials are already making plans to set up three transitional language centers in the elementary schools and expand them as necessary.
Thao says for refugees, education is one of the most important opportunities in the United States.
"I think education has truly exposed us to our sense of capability and we continue to broaden our minds and souls. I think that has truly been a helpful factor for us, to continue to self-reflect and do the best we can," he said.
The first Hmong refugees are expected to arrive in as soon as two weeks. Local resettlement agencies are gearing up, as well as community and cultural organizations. Agencies are preparing to provide job-training and English-language classes for the Hmong refugees as they begin a new life in the United States. Ilene Her, 35, of the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans, says there's something bittersweet about their arrival compared to her own in 1976.
"For us anyway, it was like America was a new frontier, the whole community came. We were all equal. We all didn't know the language, we all had no money. And it wasn't established yet, the community wasn't established. And it was ours to establish in that sense that we were all working together, we were all building something," she said.
The new wave won't have that sense of adventure. But Her says they won't feel the sadness of the first wave because the foundation is already in place.
"The first wave, they, just the sense of depression, they were so sad. They were in a country that was so new. They didn't know anything about how to interact in this society. And this next wave won't feel that sadness, won't feel that depression. They will be welcomed, they will be loved and we will help them as much as we can," she said.
Now this new wave can begin to make its own mark on Minnesota.