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New legislator is symbol of Hmong success

February 11, 2002 Monday, The Columbus Dispatch

As a child, Mee Moua's prospects did not appear to be bright.

Because her father, a member of the Hmong ethnic group in Southeast Asia, had aided U.S. pilots downed over Vietnam and Laos, the family fled Laos as the communists took control of the country at end of the Vietnam War.

From ages 5 to 9, Moua lived in a Thai refugee camp, until her family joined the exodus of Hmong families who were allowed to emigrate to the United States. Once in America, these transplanted tribal people who had little understanding of the West struggled against immense barriers of language, culture and dire poverty for a generation. But last week, Moua, now 32, made a breakthrough that signaled that the Hmong have survived and arrived in what once was an alien environment. On Feb. 4, Moua was sworn in as a Minnesota state senator, the first Hmong ever to win a seat in an American legislature.

This achievement is a classic American immigrant story. The first generation arrives with little and toils with great sacrifice at the bottom of the economic ladder to provide something that the next generation can build on. Those children and grandchildren further the work of assimilation, mastering the ways of the new society.

For the Hmong, the struggle has been perhaps more difficult than most.

After loyally and courageously fighting alongside U.S. troops against North Vietnamese and Laotian communist forces, at a cost of perhaps 67,000 combatants and civilians killed, the Hmong people were virtually abandoned when the United States pulled out of Southeast Asia in the mid-1970s.

Many ended up in communist re-education camps, where they died of malnutrition and overwork. Thousands took to the mountains, where they were mercilessly hunted and bombed by communist forces.

More than 40,000 fled Laos to live in squalor, often for years, in Thai refugee camps. In 1975, Congress admitted about 3,500 Hmong to the United States, gradually increasing the numbers through the early 1980s.

By 1990, the U.S. Census counted 94,000 Hmong, with the largest concentrations in California, Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Carolina and Michigan. The 2000 Census found Hmong numbers had increased to more than 169,000.

The original Hmong culture was a tribal one, based on slash-and-burn agriculture, large extended families and a governing system of clan elders. Women were strictly subject to men and polygamy was common.

This way of life was devastated by decades of war in Indochina, then further shocked by an American culture unsuited in any way to traditional Hmong culture, family structure and social organization.

As a result, the American Hmong community has been beset by family breakdown, poverty and the loss of many youngsters to gangs.

And yet the Hmong have endured, and as Moua's story shows, many have excelled in their new land.

In the process, they have proved once again that the American experiment continues to work.