Hmong refugees in U.S. advise newcomers - put your past behind and get to work

MISSOULA, Montana, Aug 26 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Vang Moua, a member of the ethnic Hmong hill tribe who resettled in the American West from Laos decades ago, has simple advice for new refugees.

Chue Vang, who was a child soldier in Laos before moving to the United States in 1979, sells produce at a farmers� market in his adopted hometown of Missoula, Montana, U.S. August 9, 2016. REUTERS/Ellen Wulfhorst

MISSOULA, Montana, Aug 26 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Vang Moua, a member of the ethnic Hmong hill tribe who resettled in the American West from Laos decades ago, has simple advice for new refugees.

Put aside your pride, put your past behind you and get to work, he said.

"Make money to feed your family. Make money to pay the rent," said Moua, who is now 67 and retired. "House cleaning, yard work. I did everything just for money."

And get used to cold weather and the stark Rocky Mountain landscape.

"When I came here, I looked at the mountains, it was only pine trees," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "It made me crazy."


Moua was one of hundreds of Hmong who built new lives in the small city of Missoula, Montana after the 1975 communist victory of the Pathet Lao in his war-torn homeland.

The Hmong were funded, armed and trained by the United States to fight Lao communist insurgents and the North Vietnamese Army during the Vietnam war.

But after the communists took over in 1975, tens of thousands of Hmong fleeing persecution and death came to the United States.

Hundreds of Hmong landed in Montana, thanks in part to Jerry Daniels, a Central Intelligence Agency officer who worked in Laos and encouraged Hmong to resettle in Missoula, where he had attended school.

The city welcomed new refugees this month as part of an effort by local residents and the International Rescue Committee to resettle some 150 refugees over the next year.

First to arrive was a family of six from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The rest are expected to come from such nations as Congo, Central African Republic, Syria and others, according to the IRC, which has just reopened its office in Missoula, where it had worked from 1979 to 1991 resettling Hmong.




Four decades after the Hmong first started to arrive in Montana, some 200 of them remain in the area, having spread out to the states of California, Washington and Minnesota.

Those still in Missoula, many of whom can be found selling produce at local farmers' markets, say the western Montana mountains proved to be a good place to work and raise families.

Learn the language as fast as possible, advised Bao Vang, a 32-year-old accountant whose Hmong parents moved to Missoula in 1979.

Vang's mother, accustomed to chatting and haggling over prices in markets in Laos, found no one to practice her English on in American stores, she said.

"When she come to the States, everything was already labeled," said Vang, helping her father sell huckleberries and vegetables at a market. "There's no exchanging of conversation.

"My mom said that was one of the hardest things to learn, the language, because you weren't communicating with people," she said.

Her father, Chue Vang, who had been a child soldier in Laos, worked as a janitor and translator in Montana and with his wife raised five children.


He too said Montana's cold winters might come as a shock to new refugees.

"We got here in July, summertime, hot, but later the fall came and surprise, frozen cold," he said, his eyes crinkling into a smile at the memory.

"I went to school riding a bike," he said. "Heavy snow, I walked it. It's okay."



In Moua's case, he had a job in Laos working for both the Royal Lao and U.S. governments. He fled across the Mekong River one night in 1975 into Thailand and landed in Montana with family members less than a year later.

He rented a trailer and got a job working overnight shifts as a janitor. He learned English and got a better job making plywood in a sawmill.

But losing the job in Laos where he had been a boss in an office was not easy, he said.

"When I came here, everything had changed, but I say, 'Okay, now's my new life. I don't mind any job," he said.

"You come here, you are a worker. You must change," he said.

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FACTBOX: Hmong refugees who fled Laos woven into social tapestry of Western U.S.

MISSOULA, Montana, Aug 26 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Missoula welcomed a migrant family from the Democratic Republic of Congo this month, part of an effort to resettle refugees in the small western U.S. city where hundreds of Hmong people from Laos began arriving in the 1970s.

Here are some facts about Missoula, a city of 71,000 residents in the northwest of Montana, and the Hmong people.

  • About 260,000 people of Hmong origin live in the United States, according to government census figures. Most live in the states of California, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
  • Roughly 230 Hmong live in and around Missoula, which is surrounded by mountain ranges, including the Bitterroot Mountains, Sapphire Mountains, Rattlesnake Mountains and Garnet Range.
  • Author Norman Maclean, who grew up in Missoula, wrote about the city in his 1976 "A River Runs Through It and Other Stories." It was made into a movie in 1992 directed by Robert Redford and starring Brad Pitt.
  • "Gran Torino," a 2008 movie directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, told the story of an ill-tempered retiree in Michigan and his relationship with his neighbors, a Hmong refugee family.
  • The Hmong language was not written until relatively recently. The most widely used written form was devised in the 1950s by a group of missionaries. Another form used mostly in one dialect was designed at the turn of the 20th century, and another form came following the Communist revolution using Chinese symbols.
  • The Hmong are known for sewing story cloths. The textiles are stitched and embroidered and recount family histories, wars and other tales.
  • The book "The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down," written by Anne Fadiman in 1997, describes the medical treatment of an ailing baby girl born to a Hmong immigrant family in California and the clash between Western views and her family's traditional beliefs and culture. The book is frequently used in schools to teach medical ethics and cultural sensitivity.'

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Moua and his wife went on to have six children, all of them well educated in the United States. Among them are a teacher, a nurse and a real estate agent, and the youngest just graduated college with a computer science degree.

Fellow refugee Chao Vang came to Missoula at age 18, went to school and landed a job assembling golf bags.

Success in America, he said, "depends on you."

Vang, 44, also warned that refugees from warm climates might not be too happy in Missoula.

"I had a couple friends who come here from New Orleans. They come here and they cannot stay," he said. "They say Montana is too cold for us.

"Me too, but I had nowhere to go," he said.


Reporting by Ellen Wulfhorst
The Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit

Vang Moua, a Hmong refugee who resettled in the United States in 1976, stands before a photograph of himself taken when he was 18 years old in Laos, in his adopted hometown of Missoula, Montana, U.S. August 10, 2016. REUTERS/Ellen Wulfhorst

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