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By: ANGIE CHUANG - The Oregonian April 15, 2002 Monday

Summary: The Hmong Association's new office connects Southeast Asian communities and service agencies

Even before the Hmong Association of Oregon opened its first-ever office last week, community leaders witnessed firsthand the need for the services it will provide.

Thao Xiong, the association's executive director, said some youths were so eager, they came by before Thursday's opening of the office, in the Columbia Villa/Tamarack Family Resource Center.

"They came to ask about finding jobs. I told them we'll be offering employment training and assistance, but we aren't ready yet," Xiong said. "Their parents got laid off, and it's a hard choice for them: Stay in school or go to work to help out?"

This dilemma is typical of the issues that face this refugee community of about 4,000 in Oregon. Most of them live in the North Portland neighborhoods near the new office.

For too long, Xiong said, Hmong people have been overlooked by government social services because of language and cultural barriers. The new office provides not only a space for Hmong community members to seek out assistance but also a place for county and other public agencies to access them.

Wide range of services

For the past eight months, the Hmong Association has worked with the Multnomah County Office of School and Community Partnerships to establish the office. It will provide services and referrals for Hmong, Mien, Cambodian, Laotian, Vietnamese and other Southeast Asian communities. The Asian Health and Service Center, formerly the Chinese Service Center, in Southeast Portland will provide mental health counseling.

Joslyn Baker, project coordinator for the county office, said having the Hmong Association under her roof gives her valuable access.

The county has not been very successful in reaching Southeast Asian refugee                                                                        

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communities, Baker said. She realized the potential for improvement recently when she was coordinating an energy assistance program.

After distributing a flier in English, one Vietnamese American person inquired about the program. Soon, that person's sister called, then a friend of the sister's, and so on. Baker soon realized that the first person had translated the flier and distributed it.

"That's something we should have done upfront," Baker said. "But it also made me realize the importance of having a liaison that the community trusts."

For many of the Hmong community elders who gathered at the new office Thursday, the space, though small, held great symbolic importance.

"I'm so glad the government recognized the Hmong as refugees and as a group of people living in Oregon," elder Ngia Wa Her said.

Yvon Moua, association president, said he sees the office as an affirmation of his people's permanence -- not just as refugees but as citizens of the United States.

As is often the case for the Hmong, the present is inextricably tied to the past, and Moua offered a brief history at Thursday's opening:

"Sometimes," Moua said, "it is hard for mainstream organizations to understand where we came from and why we are here."

He explained that the Hmong, a minority group living in the mountains of Laos, were recruited by the United States to fight against communists in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. When the United States withdrew from the region, the Hmong were exterminated or imprisoned by the North Vietnamese.

"That is why we are here today," Moua said. "This is the 27th anniversary of refugees from Laos settling in the state of Oregon."

Hard times during recession The office, which will be staffed by volunteers, opens at a critical time. The recession has hit services used by Southeast Asian refugees hard.

Vathara Oung, past president of the Cambodian American Community of Oregon, spearheaded efforts to establish the office.

Oung himself is a victim of layoffs; he will have to leave his post as youth development specialist and the only Asian American staff member of the Youth Opportunity Center in Northeast Portland.

He hopes that the 30-some Southeast Asian youth he brought to the center will be able to find similar support at the Hmong Association office.

"I believe we can work together as a team," Oung said. "There are a lot of problems and needs in the Southeast Asian community.

"When one member of the family drops out of school, loses a job or gets in trouble with the law, I see the whole family go downhill. We have to help them."                                                                        

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The Oregonian April 15, 2002 Monday

Angie Chuang can be reached by phone at 503-221-8219 and at angiechuang@news.oregonian.com. GRAPHIC: Graphics -- Sidebar/HMONG ASSOCIATION OF OREGON OFFICE; BW photo by ROSS WILLIAM HAMILTON/The Oregonian