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Last Updated: Tuesday, 14 September, 2004, 08:24 GMT 09:24 UK
Forgotten Hmong find new home
Bethan Jinkinson
BBC World Service

Twenty-nine year old Lor Chue, a member of South East Asia's Hmong minority, is one of America's newest immigrants.

Having spent nearly his whole life in refugee camps in Thailand, he has recently been given the chance of a new life in the USA.

"Thailand is no place for the Hmong to live because we don't have citizenship there... we are not free. So that's why I decided to go to America."

29 year old refugee Lor Chue
Lor Chue wants to become a mechanic
Like many other members of the Hmong minority, Lor Chue's father worked for the CIA when it was conducting operations from Laos during the Vietnam war.

When the Americans withdrew from South East Asia in 1975, he and at least 100,000 Hmong fled to Thailand rather than face reprisals by Laos' communist rulers.

"We had to walk through the forest, we went on every mountain, every path, every hill, to try and get to the Mekong river, so that we could get to Thailand. It was very difficult for us. We had no food to eat, we were very hungry and we almost died," said his mother, Bao Vang.

She carried Lor Chue, who was then a baby, to safety. But another of her children was killed by communist soldiers.

Although some of the Hmong were flown to the USA almost immediately, Bao Vang and 15,000 other Hmong have been living in the grounds of a temple in central Thailand, Wat Tham Krabok, since the early 80s.

For the first time in my life I am living in a proper house with running water, carpets and even a soft bed to sleep in
Lor Chue, Hmong refugee
For years they seemed to have been forgotten by successive US administrations. But finally, last year, almost the whole camp was granted leave to resettle in the US permanently.

"After 9/11, the US had difficulty fulfilling its refugee quota, and the South East Asian refugee community was a familiar community," says Kaying Yang, a Hmong American activist who is working with the refugees for the International Organization of Migration.

"Also, I think that someone in the administration remembered who the Hmong were, and the sacrifice they made for the Americans in the Vietnam war, and so they lucked out," she said.

For Lor Chue and his wife and six young children, the chance of a new life in St Paul-Minneapolis, twin cities in the US state of Minnesota, was too good an opportunity to miss.

"When I first stepped on American soil, it felt sad because I had to leave my own home in Asia, and it might be a long time before I get to go back there. But I was happy, because finally I was free, and my kids will be able to have a future, a good education," he said.

Bao Vang, whose husband worked for the CIA

Although he speaks no English, he dreams of becoming a mechanic.

"It's been great, for the first time in my life I am living in a proper house with running water, carpets and even a soft bed to sleep in.

"But I am still worried about how I am going to pay the bills, utility bills and rent. I always seem to be filling out forms, for welfare, social security. And it seems the more forms I fill out, it just generates more and more," he said.

Although life will be tough for Lor Chue, the fact that he has a number of relatives already in St Paul-Minneapolis will make it easier.

In fact, over the years more and more Hmong have moved to the twin cities, which now have the largest urban Hmong population in the world, and there is a well-developed infrastructure for the new refugees.

Mental health

Hmong who emigrated in the 1970s and 1980s had a much harder time adjusting to a life in the US.

"The most common mental health problems that I see are depression, schizophrenia and post traumatic stress disorder", said Leng Xiong, a social worker who specialises in mental health therapy for Hmong refugees.

"I think a lot of the time people have the mental health problems before they get here, but once they come to the States, where there is freedom of speech and people can voice their concerns, that's when the problems come to the surface," he said.

But many Hmong immigrants have adjusted well, and are now running successful farming businesses. Others have become doctors, lawyers and even state representatives.

They have also developed a rich cultural life, with Hmong artists, poets and even rock groups like Watching Leona performing regularly.

"In some ways, it is easier for the Hmong to adapt to America than other immigrants, because we have always been on the run," said Leng Xiong.

"We originally came from China, then went to Laos, then Thailand, and now the US. We know how to adapt to new situations", he said.

Kaying Yang echoes his view: "The good thing about our community, a community without borders, is that we can become citizens of any nation, and make it our home. "

"The world is becoming increasingly globalised, and we are a truly global community," she said.

Hmong refugees reach US
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02 Jul 03  |  Asia-Pacific
US to take Hmong refugees
18 Dec 03  |  Asia-Pacific

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