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BY: Lesley Rogers County reporter - September 22, 2000, Friday

Sai Thao has been seeking kajsiab for many years.

Kajsiab, the Hmong word for relief, is something the many Hmong refugees in Madison say they have found at Dane County's new Kajsiab House, a small cottage on the Mendota Mental Health Institute grounds.

Thao, a 50-year-old Hmong refugee, along with about 20 other Hmong men and women in Madison, have long sought kajsiab (pronounced ga SHEE' ah) from the daily stress of escaping a violent homeland to live in the drastically different United States.

''For me, in the home, I lived in darkness, very sad and depressed,'' Thao said through interpreter Mai Vue. ''This Kajsiab House shed some light, so I feel much happier coming here.''

Many of the Hmong men and women have been in Wisconsin for up to 20 years. Until the Dane County Mental Heath Center opened the doors of the Kajsiab House six months ago, they never had a place to socialize and plan for a future in a land so different from the Southeastern Asian country of Laos.

''The refugees here are all disabled, many suffer from post-traumatic stress and depression,'' said Roger Garms, a clinical psychologist who works part-time at the Kajsiab House. ''This is because of the years of war they experienced and the loss of culture and home. American treatment doesn't work very well. What seems to work better is treatment within the Hmong culture.''

Wisconsin is one of several states with a large Hmong population, after the ethnic minority was persecuted and forced out of their homes in Laos during the Vietnam War.

Many Hmong men fought for the United States during the war. At the end of the war, the Hmong veterans were either slaughtered by the Communists or they escaped to the hardships of refugee camps in nearby countries, eventually coming to the United States in the 1980s and 1990s.

''My husband was recruited in the (Vietnam) war. He was killed,'' Thao said. ''So when Americans help us and give us income, it's like repayment for the time my husband was fighting for Americans.''

Many of the men and women are haunted by the memories of loved ones who died during the Vietnam War or in its aftermath. As they gather each day at the Kajsiab House, if one person breaks down in tears, many others cry too, in what they call ''tears of the heart.''

Some Hmong refugees at Kajsiab House said when they first came to the United States, the days were so bleak they thought of suicide. Many can't sleep through the night and suffer from chronic pains.

''During the war, during the escape, I carried heavy stuff on my back and injured myself,'' said Choua Lee, 53, through a translator. ''Due to the great loss of my husband and family members, the escape brought a lot of pain.''

Doua Vang, coordinator of the Kajsiab House and clinical specialist at the county's Mental Health Center, said the ''home away from home'' was intended to help those people who are at home alone, especially disabled Hmong veterans whose wives had to go to work under Wisconsin's W-2 welfare reform.

Now, on most weekdays, about 20 elderly or disabled Hmong men and women, some toting young children, are picked up by two Hmong staff members and taken to the quiet little cottage the county rents from Mendota.

While at the Kajsiab House, the men and women play bingo, and work on their English and independent living skills. Sometimes they take field trips, including one this summer to Wisconsin Dells.

''They had nowhere to go before,'' Vang said.

Dane County has budgeted $ 145,000 this year and again for next year for the Kajsiab House, said Mary Ann Cook, administrator of economic support and work programs for Human Services. The county money isn't expected after next year, so Kajsiab House workers are applying for grants and looking for outside funding.

Prudencio Oyarbide, project coordinator at the county's Mental Health Center, said he hopes to see the Kajsiab House expand even more. He's hoping to hold an open house at the end of October.

''The Kajsiab House is quite unique. I don't see anything similar in Wisconsin,'' Oyarbide said. ''I'd like to see this place become a social center.'' Volunteers sought

The Kajsiab House is looking for volunteers to help with interpreting, donations and transportation. To help, call Prudencio Oyarbide at the Dane County Mental Health Center at 280-2480 or call Doua Vang at the Kajsiab House at 249-6031. GRAPHIC:  State Journal photo/Joseph W. Jackson III

Choua Lee listens to other Hmong men and women talk about their journey from Laos to Wisconsin when they were forced out after the Vietnam War. The Hmong men and women socialize and learn English and independent living skills at the Kajsiab House, which is on the grounds of the Mendota Mental Health Institute.

About 20 elderly and disabled Hmong men and women gather each day at the Kajsiab House. Seated on a couch in the house is Sai Thao, front left, and Neng Her. Behind them is Chao Moua Her, left, and Gee L. Yang.

Sleeping in a backpack sling, 16-month-old Ying Yang is oblivious to the activity at the house.

Photo of Roger Garms.