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Thousands of Hmong Refugees from Laos Ready to Arrive in California - 2004-04-08


In just a few months as many as 3000 new Hmong refugees could arrive in California's Central Valley. For years they've been living in a makeshift camp at a broken-down Buddhist temple in Thailand. The Hmong people aided the United States during the Vietnam War and were forced to flee their home country of Laos as the war ended. Thousands have come to the U.S since the early 1980s, but nearly 15,000 remain on the temple grounds in Thailand. In December the State Department bowed to pressure from Hmong Americans and the Thai government and agreed to let this group of refugees immigrate. Tamara Keith reports on what Fresno community leaders are doing to prepare for the arrival.

Hmong refugee Pai Yang came to this country when she was 10 years old. Now she's the Refugee Resettlement Director for Catholic Charities in Fresno, helping families fill out the forms needed to bring their relatives over from Thailand. For Ms. Yang and others, the upcoming influx of new refugees came as a surprise. She said, "For our community this is like a very great time, a joyful time. To be able to have this opportunity to resettle in this country, to have the opportunity for education, health, etc."

On this morning, Ms. Yang is meeting with Pai-Yang Thao and her husband, who are hoping to sponsor 22 family members now living on the temple grounds in Thailand. The young couple visited the camp in December. They found it surrounded by armed guards, and the people there living with no electricity or running water.

"When we got there we felt very sad that they were living in a bad place and being caged up like animals," she said. "They can't go outside to find food and they're always waiting for us over here to send them money."

Ms. Thao can't wait for her parents, siblings, nieces and nephews to arrive in Fresno. She said that for her the reunion is like a dream come true. But, if past experience is any indication, her family will likely have a hard time adjusting to life here in the valley. Pai Yang says that when she arrived with her mother and sister in the 1980s, they struggled with the language and the culture. In Laos, her mother was a successful businesswoman, but here in California she had to pick tomatoes to make a living. Ms. Yang believes that many Hmong refugees had similar difficulties.

"They were like leaders and they came here and they would become a janitor. They would work at McDonald's [low-paying fast-food restaurants] and so on," Ms. Yang said. "They would do whatever it takes to move them forward and to survive in this country. I am so happy they came to the freedom and this country. But at the same time you look at them and can't help but feel the sadness."

Pai Yang says when she and her family arrived they found little support from community groups or government. But said the new refugees will have more help. "It was hard," she added, "and that's why we're trying to do the best right now, the community, the leaders, working together locally, with state, with other leaders trying to work and prepare for this."

But even with support, it likely won't be easy for the new arrivals. Pa Lor, 53, came to Fresno in 1988 and still hasn't found a steady full-time job. She'd like to be able to help support her eight children, but right now she and her husband can't make it without government aid. Her husband recently lost his factory job and she works just two hours a day as a school aide. "The hardest thing is that we don't know how to find ways to make money," she said. "We don't have money to buy clothes for our children and have no money to buy food for our children."

Ms. Lor's situation isn't unique. Of the 27,000 Hmong who live in Fresno County, nearly 13,000 receive some kind of public assistance, either cash aid or food stamps. Wearing a purple polyester blazer with traditional Hmong stitching on the front, Pa Lor says she doesn't have the education or the English language skills to get a well-paid job. "For me, I have not reached my dream and I am still struggling," she added. "But, I am happy that I am here in this country."

About 25 Hmong refugees are gathered for an English class at the offices of Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministries. When the new refugees arrive, this organization will offer them even more basic language classes along with job training and housing assistance. The executive director, Reverend Sharon Stanley, says it's been especially tough for the Hmong because they come from one of the least developed countries in the world. They didn't even have a written language until the 1950s.

"With the barriers and the cultural and technological and literacy distance required by the Hmong to jump in order to catch up with this culture here in America, it's been the greatest distance that any other refugee group has ever had to move," Ms. Stanley said.

The Hmong who have been in the valley for a while look forward to helping the new refugees bridge that cultural gap, according to Fresno State Professor Tony Vang. He was recently elected to the Fresno Unified School District board of trustees. He's the first Hmong elected official in Fresno and only the second in California. He said that today, Hmong people are part of the establishment, a huge change from when they first arrived more than 20 years ago.

"We have a lot of professionals, such as dentists, medical doctors, lawyers and so on," he said. "And now the Hmong are able to communicate with those professionals in their native language. So I think it is going to be easier for them to adapt and adjust to their new society than the first ones."

The new refugees could begin arriving as early as June. The Central Valley's Congressional delegation is working to make sure that the region gets the federal funding it needs to give the newcomers the support they need.

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