Melting pot stirred in land of Betty Crocker

A wave of refugees heads for St. Paul. Some Minnesotans balk at expense, while immigrants rush to sponsor Hmong.

One of the large storycloths in Kang Xiong's Hmong crafts shop here tells an embroidered tale of flight and rescue, of jungles and river crossings, refugee camps, airplanes, and strange, cold lands.

It's a tale that Ms. Xiong has lived - fleeing from the Laos government when she was a teenager, crossing the Mekong River to Thailand, then coming to Minnesota as a refugee in 1980, alone and scared with two young children.

"I cried, I didn't like the food, I didn't like going to doctors," remembers Xiong, now a businesswoman and homeowner. The two-bedroom house in which she was placed seemed cavernous. "The heater made noise, and I was so scared."

For the woman who embroidered this traditional cloth, however - one of Xiong's many relatives back in Thailand - the story is still only half complete.

She is one of 15,000 Hmong residents at Wat Tham Krabok, an unofficial refugee camp some two hours from Thailand, who have languished, largely forgotten, since the UN closed its last Hmong refugee camps in the mid 1990s.

Now, the United States is offering to resettle all who want to come, provided they aren't criminals and can pass a drug test. In St. Paul, which has the largest Hmong population of any US city, that means as many as 5,000 refugees may be arriving as soon as July.

The coming influx has some St. Paulites angry, worried that public funds in tight times will be diverted to refugees' health, housing, and education needs. But city officials and the Hmong community are also hopeful that the resettlement will be a unique chance for an established community of refugees to take the lead in welcoming a wave of new arrivals, guiding them past cultural barriers that they encountered just decades ago.

"We struggled through and we survived," says William Yang, director of the Hmong American Partnership, a nonprofit serving Minnesota's Hmong community. "We don't want them to repeat our struggle, but we'll be happy to show them our success."

Mr. Yang was 6 years old when he arrived in 1980, one of the second wave of immigrants. He still remembers the trip vividly: staying at a Motel 6 in San Francisco, arriving at Minnesota's Rochester Airport wearing sandals and shorts, and walking out into knee-high snow. He kept wondering where all the tall buildings were.

Now, his group is partnering with the Minnesota Council of Churches to assist directly in the resettlement process. It may be the first time an ethnic community group has played such a formal role with its own people.

"We thought, who better to be the face of resettlement than successful Hmong immigrants?" explains Joel Luedtke, director of refugee services for the council, at a seminar for local Hmong interested in sponsoring relatives. He hopes it will become a model for resettlement agencies.

The community is jumping in, filing some 5,000 requests to sponsor relatives. But they're also concerned for those left behind. There are thousands who chose not to register out of distrust of the Thai government, or who were absent when the census took place. The US has indicated this will be the last group of Hmong accepted, and advocates worry that the circumstances of those left behind may deteriorate.

Outside states with significant Hmong populations - California, Wisconsin, and North Carolina, along with Minnesota - few Americans know of the group. But in the annals of refugee stories, theirs is particularly compelling.

Originally from China, most Hmong migrated to Laos nearly 300 years ago. During the Vietnam War, many worked for the CIA to fight the communists who had taken control of Laos. After the war, they fled, often hiding for years in the jungles. Talk to any Hmong over age 40, and you are likely to hear stories of jungle battles, desperate trips across the Mekong, and relatives who died along the way. Since the first wave of refugees arrived in 1976, perhaps 150,000 have come here. Those left behind were often afraid to come, or hoped they'd return to their home.

Today, St. Paul's University Avenue is lined with Hmong restaurants, grocery stores, and gift shops. There are Hmong representatives on the school board and in the state legislature. But the assimilation hasn't been easy. Many are illiterate; their language didn't exist in written form until a few decades ago. Even Xiong, who owns several businesses and four buildings, has never learned to read or write. Polygamy, common among Hmong, was a challenge, and authorities decided to break up some families. And the Hmong have higher poverty and unemployment rates than other Southeast Asian minorities.

Some experts worry that next wave of immigrants will face still more challenges. Years in a camp with no UN presence has meant little or no healthcare. More than half the camp's population is 14 or younger, and many have never been to school. Without formal residency status, few have been able to work, beyond making crafts to sell to relatives in America.

There's no doubt that their arrival will put a strain on city services, acknowledges St. Paul Mayor Randy Kelly. "It really couldn't come at a worse time for local government, because of the downturn in the economy. With state budget deficits and the cutback in local government aid, local governments are stretched pretty thin."

Mayor Kelly has heard from a lot of unhappy residents, but he's also accepted what is ultimately a federal decision - while actively lobbying for federal assistance. Housing will be especially tough, he says, but he hopes the fact that nearly half of established Hmong own homes - more than any other minority - will provide some relief. Hmong-owned businesses - there are over 150 - may help with employment, and there are many adult-ed classes geared toward Hmong speakers.

Schools are another challenge, and the district is brainstorming ways to deal with an influx of non-English speakers. Officials hope to create a centralized language center, targeted at new arrivals, before scattering the Hmong around the district.

The city has firsthand knowledge to help: Last month, the mayor took the rare step of leading a delegation to Wat Tham Krabok. The trip was an emotional one for Kazoua Kong-Thao, a St. Paul school board member who once lived in a similar camp, before immigrating to Dallas in 1976. "I was looking at them and saying: That could have been me," she says.

Ms. Kong-Thao, like other delegates, was struck by the number of young children and by the poor condition of the camp. Sewage and trash surrounded makeshift homes; malnutrition was rampant. But the meeting gave camp residents hope, she says. "They couldn't believe you could be successful in that short a period of time."

Indeed, Kong-Thao offers her own story to those skeptical of the city's ability to accommodate refugees. Her parents were on public assistance, and she grew up in the projects.

"In the short term, yes - they're moving here as refugees, they're going to end up with services," she says. "But I see this group as wanting to have the American dream. It's going to take a little while, but once they get on their feet, they'll really build."

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