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Ker Thao; 'Here in America we have the opportunity to pursue a higher education to achieve our dreams.'

BY: Ker Thao, The San Diego Union-Tribune, June 30, 2002

When I tell people that I am Hmong, almost none of them have heard of my ethnicity.  The Hmong are mainly concentrated in the mountainous regions of Laos. They made their own homes from wood and bamboo and raised their own livestock.  Although they did not have very much in terms of money and possessions, the Hmong people were very content.

On a grim day in 1966, my father ... was drafted into the Secret War in Laos by the United States' Central Intelligence Agency.  He, along with more than 40,000 other Hmong males, some as young as 10 years old ... were called U.S. Special Guerrilla Units.  Their main mission was to block North Vietnamese troops from reaching South Vietnam through the Ho Chi Minh Trail.  They protected U.S. troops in Laos, and they were willing to die in place of U.S. soldiers and rescued American pilots who had been shot down in their region.

The Hmong people are very much a part of American history.  During the war, the United States made many promises to the Hmong soldiers that have still not been fulfilled.  The Hmong veterans were not even recognized by the U.S. government until 1997, 36 years after the start of the Secret War.

My father, Xia Pao Thao, was 24 years old when he was recruited to fight for the United States.  My father witnessed numerous deaths in combat and was injured in his foot and torso by grenades.  He fought alongside three of his cousins, two of whom were killed in action.  All the soldiers were paid 3,500 kips a month, equal to 10 American dollars.

My parents married during the war.  My mother stayed with my father's brother and his family while my father was away.  They lived in makeshift homes, and there was never enough food to go around.  During my mother's first pregnancy, she became very ill because of poor nutrition and prenatal care.  My father's uncle carried my mother to a hospital where she received treatment from an American doctor.  After her treatment, she felt much better ... but she had lost her first child.

After the CIA moved out of Laos, the Communists ... captured all the soldiers who fought for the United States and sent them to re-education camps.  They were forced to work all day and were given only two meals a day.

When my father came back, he started his family and became a farmer.  Before long, he heard that the Communists were searching for the soldiers who fought for the United States again.  My father decided that living in Laos was no longer safe. ... He decided to flee with his family to Thailand.

They traveled on foot with my father's two cousins and their families.  There were six adults and 12 children, four of which were my older siblings.  The three families walked through the jungle for five days, being very careful not to get caught by the Pathet Lao soldiers who were regularly patrolling.  They slept on the ground at night using banana leaves as blankets, and they carried nothing with them except food.

The morning after arriving in Thailand, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) brought my family to the Ban Vinai Refugee Camp, where I was born one year later.  After spending about 2 1/2 years there, my family was relocated to the Chieng Kham Refugee Camp. After being approved to come to United States, my family was then transferred to the Phananikhong Transition Camp for about six months, where we went to school to learn English and the American culture.

On Sept. 26, 1986, my family arrived in St. Paul, Minn. I was the youngest child of five at the time, being almost 2 years old.  We had a very difficult time settling in because everything was so different from our previous home.  We had no idea how to use the oven or even the toilet.

On our first Fourth of July in America, my father thought another war had broken out because the fireworks sounded so similar to the gunfire he heard on the front line.  It brought back dreadful memories and gave him nightmares for weeks.

Our first home was a very small, three-bedroom house that was in very bad shape.  Although it was not much, it was our home and it was a mansion compared to our hand-made, one-room shack in Laos. Our American next-door neighbors showed us great generosity and kindness, but the rest of the neighborhood was not so welcoming.  We experienced much racial prejudice.

In September of 1990, we moved to San Diego, where we now reside, to be closer to my father's relatives.

Living in America has given my family and me so many more opportunities than we would have had in our homeland.  It has especially opened up the doors for my sisters and me because we are women.  The expectation for a Hmong woman in Laos was to grow up to be a loyal wife and caring mother.  Here in America, we have the opportunity to pursue a higher education to achieve our dreams.

I think that a lot of people take this for granted.  My parents fought and struggled so hard to give me these opportunities that I will not let them pass me by.  My oldest sister graduated as salutatorian of her class and is currently in her last year at the University of California San Diego.  My other sister graduated in the top 10 of her class and is attending San Diego State University.  My goal is to graduate as valedictorian and make my parents even more proud than they already are.

Although my parents are trying their hardest to keep our Hmong traditions alive, my siblings and I have lost much of our Hmong culture.  I never realized how important it is for me to retain my Hmong culture and language before, because I was so caught up in being "American." Now I know that being different and having my own unique heritage is what being American is all about.  I make it a point to ask my parents about our homeland and to speak Hmong at home in hopes of recovering the Hmong culture.

A Caucasian friend recently told me, "Being born in America doesn't make me any more American than you," when I mentioned my citizenship interview to him. Even though I am not yet an official citizen of the United States, I know that I am already a true American. GRAPHIC: 1 PIC; Roni Galgano / Union-Tribune; Ker Thao, 17, was not yet 2 years old when her Hmong family arrived in St. Paul, Minn.