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Rural roots bring Hmong to Georgia; Sunny South and fertile farms seen as friendly turf by Vietnam War allies

By: JANITA POE, The Atlanta Journal and Constitution April 17, 2002 Wednesday

Winder --- Horror stories have followed the Hmong ever since they began immigrating to the United States from Laos nearly 30 years ago.

There was the Hmong shaman in Fresno, Calif., who chanted incantations while a German shepherd puppy was publicly bludgeoned. And the Hmong mother in St. Paul, Minn., who strangled her six children to death. And there have been many other incidents --- of Hmong exorcisms and opium use, polygamy and kidnap marriages. That many Hmong live in poverty has only added to their negative image.

Now the Hmong (pronounced MUNG) are beginning to settle in, adopt community mores and join the middle class. At the same time, they gradually are migrating from the North and West, where many initially were settled, to the South.

North Carolina and Georgia have sizable Hmong communities. As they adapt, many of these Southern Hmong are abandoning their native religions for Christianity.

See Yang, 38, co-founder of the Hmong Resource & Development Center of Georgia, said the Hmong still are one of the most impoverished immigrant groups in the country, but there are signs of progress. "We are becoming more established," Yang said. "We are buying homes, and we have some professionals now."

The largest group of Hmong in Georgia live in Barrow County, where many own small farms or work in electronic assembly and packaging jobs. At least three families have opened businesses. About a dozen Hmong in Barrow have college degrees, primarily in engineering and other technical fields. Helped CIA in Vietnam

The Hmong are nomadic mountain people from Southeast Asia. From 1961 to 1973, they were recruited by the CIA to assist the American war effort in Vietnam. After the United States' evacuation in 1975, the Hmong were forced into exile in Thai refugee camps before eventually resettling in the United States and other countries.

In contrast to immigrants from less isolated areas, the Hmong encountered culture shock in the crowded refugee camps and in the United States, where they attended school and learned a written language for the first time.

Minnesota Sen. Mee Moua, a St. Paul lawyer who this year became the first Hmong state legislator, vividly recalls having to flee her village when she was 5 for safety in a refugee camp. "We just took off and left everything," Moua said. "If you were to walk into our house later, it would look as if we'd never left."

Moua said the hardships of the past make it easier for the Hmong to appreciate the United States. "We've been able to deal with less in this country," Moua said. "Most Hmong people are just grateful to be here."

Soon after arriving in the United States, however, the Hmong --- with traditions springing from a clan-based farming lifestyle --- began clashing with others.

Practices prompting the most criticism include: Kidnap marriages. Traditionally, Hmong boys ages 15 to 18 would organize their male friends to kidnap a chosen girl, usually age 12 to 14, for his wife. If the husband could afford it, he would repeat the process and eventually have three wives, all sharing the same bedroom and working together in the fields. Animal sacrifice. Hmong animists believe animal sacrifices ward off evil spirits. To fight more challenging spirits, animals such as pigs, cows and even pet dogs must be killed. Opium use. Opium is considered a common medicine in Hmong culture. In Southeast Asia, opium was an important crop along with rice and corn.

Pam Pierce, program director for Asian Community Services in Winder, said the Hmong's culture and heritage have kept many trapped in poverty. Hmong tend to settle in isolated rural areas, Pierce said, and accept a poor standard of living.

"Their housing, in many cases, is horrible," Pierce said. "But they don't look at themselves as being poor. They are able to get by on less than many people." Word is out: Jobs here

The first Hmong families in Georgia came directly from Southeast Asian refugee camps. Most were in resettlement programs run by local churches. Since the early 1990s, however, there has been no new wave of Hmong refugees from overseas, social workers say.

But Georgia's Hmong population has grown steadily as Hmong residents move here from other states after getting word-of-mouth tips about jobs, farmland and the mild climate.

Bo Thao, executive director of Hmong National Development in Washington, said many Hmong have dreamed of returning to a farming area. The South, she said, is known among Hmong Americans as a good agricultural region with affordable land and plenty of jobs.

"We saw very quickly that Hmong people began to move to areas where they felt more welcome and more comfortable," said Thao, 28. "I certainly think the weather is a plus, and many families have chosen the South because of the opportunity to buy land and farm again."

One dramatic change in Hmong culture has been in religion. Though Hmong traditionally are Buddhist or animistic, Christian Hmong groups --- which sprang up after many took part in religious refugee programs --- have grown rapidly.

In the past two decades, Hmong Christians have established at least six churches in metro Atlanta, including the Chivkeeb Baptist Mission of Columbia Drive Baptist Church in Decatur.

The Rev. Thai Her, pastor of Chivkeeb Baptist, said many Hmong have become Christians because of Christ's image as a savior of poor, oppressed people. "Jesus Christ came to save the oppressed, the poor, the needy and the outcast," said Her, 39, a former refugee who attended Towers High School in DeKalb County.

As assimilation proceeds, some Hmong try to promote a better understanding of their culture. "Every aspect of the Hmong life has been put under a microscope," Moua said. Hmong advocates point out that the community was stigmatized in 1998 when a mother in St. Paul killed her six children by strangulation, but as the Andrea Yates case in Texas shows, horrible murders occur among other groups as well.

Though the scrutiny may be unfair, Moua said, it does have an upside. "In a way, it's been good for us and given us an opportunity to re-examine ourselves and be cautious about how we interpret ourselves and present ourselves to the outside community."

In Georgia and elsewhere, many Hmong nonprofit and government agencies are run by young adults who grew up as child refugees in the 1970s and became Americans in the 1980s and 1990s.

See Yang and his wife, Sabrina, are part of that group. Yang, of the Hmong Resource & Development Center of Georgia, is a former refugee. Now he owns a Lawrenceville packaging company.

Yang said his organization and the few other Asian community service centers in northeast Georgia are trying to help more Hmong learn English, find jobs and advance their education.

The Hmong Resource & Development Center provides referrals, legal advice and translation services to parents of the estimated 500 Hmong students in Barrow County public schools.

"We're just trying to give back to our community," Yang said. GRAPHIC: Graphic: FLIGHT OF THE HMONG The Hmong came to the United States from Southeast Asia at the end of the Vietnam War. Originally from Laos, they fled to refugee camps in Thailand, pending transit to America. U.S. CONCENTRATIONS Georgia ranks eighth in states with Hmong populations. States with sizable Hmong communities: 1. California.... 65,095 2. Minnesota......41,800 3. Wisconsin......33,791 4. North Carolina..7,093 5. Michigan........5,383 6. Colorado........3,000 7. Oregon..........2,101 8. Georgia........ 1,468 9. Washington......1,294 10. Massachusetts..1,127 Map shows countries in Southeast Asia, VIETNAM, LAOS, THAILAND, CAMBODIA. Inlaid map shows Area of detail as it relates to Asia and the Indian Ocean. / ROB SMOAK / Staff Photo: Time for reflection: Nhia Vue (left) leads a prayer as the Rev. Thai Her bows his head during Bible study at Chivkeeb Baptist Mission at Columbia Drive Baptist Church in Decatur.  / BITA HONARVAR / Staff Photo: The good life: See Yang, a businessman and co-founder of the the Hmong Resource & Development Center of Georgia, and his wife, Sabrina, relax in their Lawrenceville home. / CHARLOTTE B. TEAGLE / Staff