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First Hmong-American Legislator - 2002-02-02

In the 1970's, thousands of Hmong people settled in the United States after fleeing violence or refugee camps in Southeast Asia. In their new homeland, they have become teachers, business owners and a variety of other things. Now, for the first time, a Hmong immigrant to the United States has been elected to a legislative body.

When Mee Moua was nine years old, her family left a refugee camp in Thailand and settled in a small town in the Midwest U.S. state of Wisconsin. She was physically and culturally a long way from her native country, Laos. "I remember being very confused. I remember feeling very much like a minority. I could not understand anything, I couldn't really read anything and I could not speak English," she says.

She leaned English well enough to earn degrees from universities in the states of Rhode Island, Texas and Minnesota. Ms. Moua became a lawyer and now has been elected to the Minnesota State Senate. She is the first Hmong legislator in the United States. An owner of the St. Paul Minnesota-based Hmong Times, Cheu Lee, says this is big news. "This has been a historic moment for the Hmong people, perhaps even in our whole universe," he says. "This is a very happy [time] for the Hmong people."

St. Paul businessman True Thao says hundreds of Hmong people in Ms. Moua's district registered to vote just to cast a ballot for her. On Election Day, volunteers used 30 vehicles to take residents to the polls. "I think there is a taste of being Americans," he says. "I think this is the beginning of a process where I think people are energized and I hope this momentum will carry on."

St. Paul, Minnesota, has the highest concentration of Hmong residents in the country, about 25,000. Many of those live in Ms. Moua's district on the East Side of the city, but she says she could not have won election without the support of non-Hmong voters. "The most beautiful thing about this is if you are Hmong, you are very proud that we finally have somebody from our community doing this, but you are grateful that the rest of the community thought that your person was good enough to represent all of them," she says.

Ms. Moua's family fled Laos when Communists took power at the end of the Vietnam War. Her father was a medic who was considered pro-American because he helped downed U-S pilots during the conflict. The day before the election, she and her husband visited relatives' gravesites in St. Paul to thank them for settling in the United States. Ms. Moua says she does not mind if other Hmongs see her as a role model. "It is a symbol of success," she says. "It is a symbol of the realization of the American dream. It is evidence that this is now home to all of us."

Ms. Moua is completing the term of another legislator who was elected mayor of St. Paul last November. This November, she will run again for a full term in the Minnesota Senate.