The United States government is preparing to resettle 15,000 ethnic Hmong who supported the U.S.-led anti-Communist effort in Laos during the Vietnam War. They fled to Thailand after the war ended nearly 30 years ago. About half of the refugees are to go to the city of St. Paul in Minnesota, and in an unprecedented move, they received a visit on Tuesday (02 March 2004) from that city's mayor.
The mayor of St. Paul, Randy Kelly, spent a week in Thailand to meet refugees and Thai officials as the U.S. government prepares to resettle nearly 15,000 Hmong in the United States.
They are among 300,000 ethnic Hmong who fled Laos after the Communist takeover in 1975. Most were resettled in Western countries, about half of them in the United States, but this group continues to live in a makeshift village at the Tham Krabok Buddhist temple, north of Bangkok.
Mr. Kelly met with residents to hear about their lives and the aspirations they hold. "It is a very profound moment for me in my life to see thousands of people looking to you with hope in their eyes and questions, really, in their heart," said the mayor.
St. Paul is home to 25,000 Hmong-Americans, one of the largest such communities in the country. The mayor was accompanied by seven Hmong leaders from his city, as well as state and local officials.
Mayor Kelly acknowledged that language will pose a barrier, particularly for older Hmong. But he said the younger immigrants, if they enroll in school, should quickly learn English and adapt to U.S. culture.
"We of course will have challenges with respect to finding adequate housing and making sure that our schools are doing the best that we can to ensure that they are successful," he said. "But I am very optimistic that their lives will be much improved."
Some refugees expressed anxiety, especially over finding jobs, but others said they were excited and hoped the move will lead to a better life.
Most are confined to this village of wood and tin-sheet houses without running water. The Thai military records their movements and they cannot legally hold jobs.
The head of the Thai Committee for the Hmong, Willis Bird, says life in the United States will be very different for people who have spent decades under these conditions. "But we are collaborating with the United States government to see to it that these people receive some form of indoctrination, receive some form of education, receive some form of training before they depart for the United States," Mr. Bird said.
The Thai government wants to close the Wat Tham Krabok refugee camp. It says the 1,000 mostly elderly refugees who do not want to emigrate to America will have to move in with family elsewhere. The resettlement is due to begin in August.
Tens of thousands of other Hmong, many of them considered illegal immigrants, will remain in Thailand. Their future is uncertain.