Hmong: Laotian hill people who now call St. Paul home

Most Americans would consider reciting the alphabet an easy grade school accomplishment.

But for a 40-year-old Hmong refugee with no formal education and no familiarity with any written language, pronouncing the ABC's correctly and in order during English graduation exercises here at the Lao Family Community Center can be a difficult challenge and an accomplishment of considerable pride.

The Hmong, a people with a long history of fierce independence, are largely seminomadic farmers, with little or no formal education, from the mountains of North and Central Laos. They were staunch US allies during the Vietnam war.

In the aftermath of that war and the new migration patterns it set in motion, the Twin Cities have become ''home'' to the largest concentration of Hmong refugees - some 11,000 - in any metropolitan area of the United States. St. Paul , with the largest settlement, is sometimes referred to here as the Hmong capital of America.

It happened partly because several clan leaders in this tribal society had Minnesota sponsors at the time of the first Hmong migration in 1976. Many Hmong arriving later in other parts of the United States followed them here in the last few years.

The challenge facing the many groups trying to help them here is considerable. Of all refugee groups settling in the US, the Hmong are being required to make what some experts insist is the most difficult cultural, linguistic, and vocational leap. Their lack of education and familiarity with the written word made even learning how to learn a new experience.

''When they first came, they didn't know what a pencil was and how to hold it - or a class and why they were there,'' explains Lucille Fisher, instructional supervisor for the Adult Community Education Center in St. Paul.

Many of the refugees have large families and few job skills easily transferrable to an urban society. An estimated 50 to 60 percent depend on some form of public assistance. One early Hmong arrival considers his people not unlike American Indians before the European migration.

''Of all the Indochinese refugees, these are the most difficult to resettle, '' says Ramsey County Commissioner Diane Ahrens, who has been actively involved in resettlement work. ''They have many assets, but they're used to very primitive living, and the catch-up job is enormous.''

The recently announced Washington cutbacks in refugee aid have caused further concern here as to whether the Hmong can be given enough of a helping hand to become self-sufficient, mainstream Americans. Most families who qualified for federal assistance at all have taken a cut of close to half as they've switched from federal aid to Minnesota general assistance help after their first 18 months in the US.

Jane Kretzmann, state coordinator for the Minnesota Refugee Program Office in the state Department of Public Welfare, says that many who have been able to get jobs earn only minimum wage and cannot support their traditionally large families. Her office did a study that showed it takes the Hmong longer to move off public assistance than other Southeast Asian refugees.

''Our concern is that it's very difficult to climb out of the poverty cycle once you're in it,'' she says.

To combat these problems, there is a strong new emphasis on the practical and vocational in Hmong English language training.The first stop for many Hmong on arrival - though it is short of teachers and interpreters and has a long waiting list - is the Lao Family Community Self Help Organization, a branch of the nonprofit group founded by refugees in California in 1977. It aims to ground newcomers in the basics of the English language and American culture.

Sing Vang, coordinator of the center's bilingual education program, explains that in addition to trying to teach refugees such basic first steps as how to take public transportation, how to do simple addition and subtraction, and how to memorize their phone numbers and addresses, the group's teachers try to explain the mysteries of the American legal and health-care systems and offer detailed information on family planning.

Important cultural differences, he says, need to be stressed. For instance, many Hmong, used to a strong and independent police force back home, wonder why American police do not immediately shoot to kill a burglar caught in the act. And as skillful hunters who have been free to take as many animals as they can shoot, the Hmong have to be taught American hunting and licensing laws.

Many Hmong go on from the Lao Family Center to learn more English with an even more practical bent through other programs such as the Adult Basic and Continuing Education Program taught in Twin Cities public schools.

''We can't use the traditional linguistic approach because it's not employment-oriented or fast enough,'' notes Benjamin Bryant, coordinator of the program for St. Paul schools.

Those who qualify - largely family breadwinners and more recent arrivals - come for six to nine months of classes. Along with the language training, they are given concrete job search information and take part in mock interviews.

Some of the early Hmong arrivals, who tended to be better-educated and knew more of American ways, were trained as machinists. Hmong tend to be followers, refugee workers say, and many later arrivals tried to follow suit but have had a much harder time finding jobs. Many Hmong are in janitorial, food-service, hotel , and hospital jobs.

Refugee employers, surveyed by various groups including a University of Minnesota team, report that the Hmong are hard-working, productive employees who are rarely absent from their jobs. Most surveyed, however, said that the language barrier remains a serious problem. An employer study by Literacy 85, a project aimed at coordinating the efforts of those providing literacy help, found similarly that workers often do not understand what employers are trying to tell them.

''There's a growing realization that you can't expect people from so alien a culture to learn this language so quickly and be able to cope,'' says Literacy 85 director Greta Ploetz. ''There's going to have to be ongoing education for them.''

Refugee workers know that employers, too, could benefit from insights in the Hmong culture. Many Hmong, for instance, have a respect for authority and a natural reluctance that makes them hesitant to ask questions. Two Hmong women employed part-time by a hospital cautiously asked their English-language teacher one day if they were ever permitted to use the bathroom during hours on duty and , if so, how they might ask where it is.

To help meet the Hmong halfway in their efforts to make it in American society, a growing number of Minnesotans who work with the refugees - such as firefighters, police, utility bill collectors, hospital workers, and even Boy Scout leaders - have been taking crash courses in Hmong.

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