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Hmong use Fourth to reflect on ordeal

BYLINE: By Chris Burbach, Omaha World-Herald, July 5, 2002

Kaying Lor and Seng Chang are celebrating July Fourth as spiritedly as they did before their immigrant family learned tough lessons about how far their rights extend - and how far they don't - in their adopted country.

The Lor-Chang family traveled to St. Paul, Minn., the Midwest's Hmong population center. They're observing Independence Day like the Hmong celebrate the New Year - eating traditional food, catching up with extended family, reuniting with old friends.

Always special for social-minded, patriotic immigrants, this year's holiday is extra festive for Lor and Chang, given what happened this spring in Omaha.

Authorities took four children from the family for four days in May. Six children similarly were removed from a Vietnamese family's home.

Teachers and police suspected child abuse after spotting bruises on some of the children. The children went home, and criminal proceedings against the parents ended, after the families protested that the bruises were the harmless result of a folk medicine practice called coining. The home remedy involves rubbing the skin vigorously with a spoon or coin and an ointment.

The Vietnamese family, headed by Mai Ly Thui Bui and Thanh Tukhac Do, reportedly has moved back to Lincoln. They had said they wanted to go back to a larger, more organized Vietnamese community. The family sold their Shangri-La brand trailer in an East Omaha mobile home park, leaving behind a swing set on their tiny lot.

Lor and Chang didn't consider moving. They like their life in Omaha and again are comfortable in the community.

In St. Paul this week, there's a soccer tournament. Hmong vendors are selling traditional clothing. Lor and Chang expected to see family and friends from California, North Carolina and even Laos.

"We are excited to be together again," Lor said. "Everybody's happy to                                                                       

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celebrate July 4th."

The family's life has mostly returned to normal, Lor said during a recent interview in the family's northwest Omaha home.

As he spoke, his wife, who speaks little English, sat by his side, occasionally refereeing in the boisterous play of 2-year-old Dinah and 4-year-old Kanoo. At one point, Dinah appeared with a purple plastic tea set in a backpack and served imaginary tea to the whole room. David, 8, made himself scarce. Aaron, 6, already had gone to St. Paul with cousins.

When the parents aren't working their opposite shift factory jobs, they're taking the children on such summer outings as fishing at area lakes.

Lor said Aaron still talks of being worried that police are going to take him to jail. The father said his daughters seem frightened when they see police.

He moved the children after the incident from Sherman Elementary School to Pinewood Elementary School, nearer the family's home. Lor said Pinewood's student population is more diverse.

But he said the parents bore no ill will toward Sherman. He said teachers were motivated by a desire to protect children when they reported the bruising.

Lor said that his sons missed their Sherman teachers and that he took the boys back to visit on the last day of school. One teacher gave his son a small box of toys.

Although the parents respect the authorities' motives and now understand the American system better, they still think they should have had a chance to explain coining.

"Initially, we were frustrated," said Maria Vu, the director of Lincoln's Asian Community and Cultural Center. "We forgot to say we want the safety of the children. It's just how you approach the process."

Many Southeast Asians, particularly Hmong people, were up in arms when the families' children were taken. More than 50 protested in Omaha.

"Most of these families have had some personal experience with the communists," she said. "You have a scar in your life. It never goes away. When they took away the children that night, he (Do, the Vietnamese father), just felt like he lost everything, like his freedom didn't mean anything."

Lor said he felt that way, too.

"We were running from the communists, and now we see something like that here, too," he said.

In Laos, where the Hmong are a repressed minority, Lor wouldn't have been able to challenge police. Here, he exercised constitutional rights: freedom of speech and assembly, the right to counsel, to confront his accusers.

"I learned a lot of new stuff," Lor said. "You have a right to live and a right to say, and you can fight for your rights."

Lor said the family still will use coining, but probably won't rub as hard. He said the next time coining leaves marks, he'll go with his children to school to explain it.

Omaha police and school officials have defended their actions, saying they're bound to report and investigate suspected child abuse.In time, Vu said, Southeast Asians will accept what happened in May as a mistake that all parties learned from.

"Maybe Omahans will be more culturally aware next time," Vu said.  "And the Asian families, maybe next time they will do the coining more lightly." GRAPHIC: Color Photo/1 Kaying Lor and his wife, Seng Chang, are still upset that the state took away their children - Dinah, left, 3, Kanoo, 4, and David, 8 - over a misunderstanding about an Asian health remedy, but they understand more now.; RUDY SMITH/THE WORLD-HERALD/1sf