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Leaders encourage Hmong to seek counseling

DATELINE: ST. PAUL, Minn. - December 7, 2000, Thursday

Hmong leaders in the Twin Cities are pleading with families to seek counseling instead of resorting to violence to settle disputes.

"It's phenomenally serious, because the Hmong people don't know how to approach these situations," said Mee Vang, executive director of the Hmong United International Council of Minnesota.

So far this year, eight Hmong have died as a result of domestic disputes and 25 children have been left without one or both parents.

Of six fatal incidents involving Hmong, two were murder-suicides of couples. The most recent was Sunday, when a north Minneapolis man shot and stabbed his wife before killing himself while their 13 children and stepchildren were home. Another murder-suicide occurred Jan. 31 in St. Paul.

The rise in domestic violence comes as many Hmong try to preserve their culture, which includes clan elders and kin mediating in marital disputes, Vang said.

It's difficult for Hmong to balance integration with tradition, she said.

The immigrants from the highlands of Laos come from a patriarchal society in which domestic killings were unheard of and domestic abuse caused men to be shunned by their clans, leaders said. They say the stresses of life in the United States and the difficulties of assimilation might be at the root of the violence.

Traditional Hmong marriages are arranged. Two witnesses stand up for the couple. The couple is expected to contact the witnesses for help in case of marital disputes, but the practice is falling into disuse, Vang said.

Such traditions as the use of bridal dowries and an aversion to divorce are clashing with American practices. In the 70 cases now before the council - also called the Hmong 18 Council for the 18 clans it represents - three-quarters involve divorces, Vang said.

Minnesota, with an estimated 60,000 to 80,000 Hmong residents, is the nation's largest resettlement area for Hmong and is leading the way in domestic violence among Hmong families nationwide, leaders said.

The latest cases include one on Nov. 25, when a Hmong woman was killed in St. Paul. Authorities describe it as a contract murder arranged by her child's father, from whom she was estranged.

An Eagan, Minn., woman was fatally shot in August by her estranged Hmong husband. And a young Hmong man committed suicide this year after a teen-ager said to be married to him under Hmong tradition moved out and reported to police that she had been subject to statutory rape.

Earlier tragedies include the apparent killing of a St. Paul woman whose remains were found recently in Goodhue County. Her husband committed suicide the day she disappeared in 1998.

"The community has suffered greatly from these tragedies and as we try to heal these wounds we hope to find answers and solutions that will prevent future tragedies from occurring," said Cha Vang, son of Hmong national leader Gen. Vang Pao and a Twin Cities resident.

The council, made up almost entirely of volunteers, hopes to collaborate more with other social service agencies and with police, said council Chairman Khoua Xang Vang.

One woman who turned to the council was Mai Vang, who left her husband after he threatened to kill her and her family. He committed suicide Nov. 14. Mai Vang had met with Khoua Xang Vang about two weeks before the suicide, he said. Khoua Xang Vang said he told Mai Vang that she did the right thing by leaving her husband.

"Our Hmong people, they are very scared," he said. "That's why they say there are only two options: life and death. And when they have done something wrong, there is only death."