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Twin Cities family were the state’s first Hmong refugees 40 years ago

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- On a chilly December day in 1975, Dang "Donald" Hawj approached a Vietnamese immigrant who had arrived in the Twin Cities a few months before him. For a moment, his heart soared. Hawj was grateful to meet another newcomer also ...

2185633+120615.N.STP_.HMONGFAMILY1.jpg
Dang and Shoua Hawj show a picture of themselves when they were 19 (Dang) and 14 (Shoua). They are the first Hmong couple to arrive in the U.S. and are approaching the 40th anniversary of that date in 1975. They now live in Maple Grove. (Pioneer Press: Jean Pieri)

 

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- On a chilly December day in 1975, Dang “Donald” Hawj approached a Vietnamese immigrant who had arrived in the Twin Cities a few months before him.

For a moment, his heart soared. Hawj was grateful to meet another newcomer also from Asia, even though the two men spoke different languages and came from different cultures.

Hawj explained that he was Hmong, an ethnic group from Southeast Asia. In fact, he and his pregnant wife and son were the first Hmong refugees in the state.

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They were alone in a new place.

“I wondered how I would survive without any Asians, any Hmong,” said Hawj, recalling how difficult it was to master English and find steady employment. “So I worried a lot. I didn’t know Hmong refugees would follow me. I didn’t know that the government had a plan to bring more refugees over here.”

Reshaping Minnesota’s ethnic landscape

What followed was a resettlement effort that helped reshape the ethnic landscape of Minnesota. The Hmong were but one refugee group from former French colonies of Indochina - Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos - who fled after Communist governments came to power in those countries.

Within months of his family’s arrival 40 years ago on Dec. 5, 1975, enough Hmong had come to Minnesota for Hawj to co-found a social service and benevolent society in

St. Paul, the Lao Family Community of Minnesota, Inc., as well as annual Hmong soccer and New Year’s festivals.

By 1990, there were over 17,000 Hmong in Minnesota. Today, the number exceeds 77,000, according to U.S. Census counts.

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These days, most of Minnesota’s ethnic Hmong population are native born in the U.S. This wasn’t the case for Dang and Shoua Hawj.

Both were in their 20s when they fled government reprisals during the Communist takeover of Laos and snuck across the Mekong River to Thailand under cover of darkness. They sought refuge in a former military base converted into a refugee camp.

And in fundamental ways, they helped shape the experiences of the 77,000 Hmong who came after them or were born in Minnesota.

“If I look back on my life, I lived in Laos for only 27 years, but I lived here 40 years,” said Hawj, sitting in the living room of his Maple Grove home last month with Shoua at his side.

The couple raised seven children in the Twin Cities, six sons and a daughter.

“I’ve been in Minnesota most of my life - I told my friends, I can’t move,” he said.

Opportunity in Minnesota

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For Hawj, who is retired, much of the hard part is in the past.

Since his arrival in 1975, he’s gone from an initial job filing papers at a travel company - a disastrous fit, given his understanding of English at the time - to owning two St. Paul grocery stores.

He visited Laos last year and found that even Hmong residents who had graduated from a police academy there were being turned away from government jobs because of their families’ association with anti-Communist forces 40 years prior.

Despite hardships and sacrifices in America, it’s been more welcoming, Hawj said. His daughter holds a master’s degree in project management. His son is dating a pharmacist - and, while she is not Hmong, at her graduation ceremony, he noticed Hmong families in the audience.

At the ceremony, “two other Hmong got their pharmacy degrees,” said Hawj, his voice cracking with emotion. “I thank God. That would never happen in Laos.

“If we didn’t come, we don’t have the opportunity to go to school. They say the United States is the land of opportunity,” he added. “I say yeah, that’s right. Back in Laos, we didn’t have that opportunity.”

Shoua agrees.

“I think Minnesota has been better than other (areas for the Hmong),” she said. “I’ve been to California. I don’t like it. Here, it’s snowy, but it’s easier to find jobs. Even if you can’t work, it’s easier to apply for help.”

‘They were very, very young’

Shoua was 14 when her parents told her she would be married to a 19-year-old relief worker assisting the Americans. Dang Hawj was helping the U.S. Agency for International Development (US AID) and its “Mission to Laos” build an irrigation dam in town, among other projects.

“They were very, very young,” said their daughter, Risa Hawj, a human resources manager who lives in Coon Rapids.

Those arranged marriages were the old ways, and at the time, Shoua was grateful for them. For starters, she’d finally be free of her mom and dad’s rice and corn fields.

“I felt lucky,” Shoua said with a smile. “My family was farmers. I didn’t want a farmer!”

Hawj frequently left the Sayabouly province in northwestern Laos, where his wife’s family lived, to visit his own parents and relatives in the village areas near the CIA’s Long Tieng military base in the north-central part of the country.

Like the war in Vietnam, which had gone badly for the Americans and their anti-Communist allies, the Laotian Civil War was going badly for the Hmong who had sided with the Royal Lao Family against the growing power of the Communist Pathet Lao regime.

Fleeing Laos

The end came swiftly.

From May 10 to May 14 in 1975, the U.S. “Secret War” in Laos unraveled with the airlift of Hmong Gen. Vang Pao and his forces from the Long Tieng military base, ahead of the Communist Pathet Lao.

Hawj knew that Hmong throughout the country would face repercussions, including violence.

A Laotian friend arranged for the couple and their 2-year-old son, Touvi, to take a taxi from the Laotian capital of Vientiane to a rowboat that carried them across the Mekong River. The trip to Thailand took three or four hours.

“When we got to the other side, the sun was almost out,” Hawj said. “We were scared, because at the time, the Lao Communists guarded the riverbanks very strictly, because they didn’t want anyone to cross to Thailand. If they saw you, they’d shoot. … We were lucky.”

The family spent six months in Nam Phong, a Thai air base that had been converted into a refugee camp. One of Hawj’s former supervisors from US AID had moved on to work for Control Data, and another worked at the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok. The two were instrumental in helping Hawj make it to Minnesota.

Difficult adjustment

At this time, U.S. Vice President Walter Mondale implored the United Nations to help resettle Southeast Asian “boat people” displaced by conflict, and countries around the world mobilized.

The United Methodist Church of Anoka also mobilized. At the urging of active member Phyllis Jablonski, the church became the Hawj family’s official sponsor to Minnesota.

The couple they ended up staying with, however, was Roman Catholic.

Scott DeLong ran the Rum River Lumber Co. with his brother. His wife, Mary Helen Cutter DeLong, had inherited a title company and abstract office after the death of her first husband.

The two were well known throughout Anoka, where Mary was active in the Office of Economic Opportunity and the Anoka Historic Preservation Commission. The couple opened their home to Hawj, who knew nothing of Minnesota when he arrived with his family on Dec. 5, 1975.

Temperatures in Thailand had been in the 80s. The day the couple landed, the Twin Cities were in the 30s. Shoua, who was six months pregnant, had little understanding of snow, which she mistook for a strange soil.

“All I could think was that I missed my parents very much,” Shoua said. “I thought United States had white dirt. At the time, I was very depressed. I stayed in the bedroom all day until Dang came home.”

Carol Freeburg, 88, a member of the United Methodist Church of Anoka, remembers visiting Shoua and teaching her basic words, like apple and banana.

“She had no friends,” said Freeburg. “Her husband Dang, last time I talked to him on the phone, he was still laughing about the early days, when I cut out pictures of tomatoes and lettuce and made a scrapbook so she could associate a picture with an English word.”

Opportunities blossom

The two women still visit occasionally alongside Jablonski’s daughter, Mary Jablonski.

“I think they’re a success story of what immigration should be like,” said Freeburg, remarking on the family’s hard work and entrepreneurial success. “I’ve been blessed to be their friend.”

Back in 1975, the weather and sense of isolation weren’t the only challenges for the Hawj family in Minnesota.

“It was difficult settling in because we didn’t know the language and we didn’t know the bus system,” said Hawj, who found a job filing papers for a travel company in Plymouth.

Even getting to work was difficult.

“At the time, the road system wasn’t as developed yet, so it was like a four-hour bus trip,” he said. He didn’t last long at the job.

However, job opportunities grew.

His son Touvi is a production scheduler at a print shop in Hopkins. His son Bill, the first Hmong child to be born in Minnesota, drives a courier truck.

Bill, who attended Como Park High School in St. Paul, recalled many Hmong students dropping out of school in the early 1990s.

“There wasn’t much support,” he recalled. “I didn’t graduate, but I got my GED (general educational development degree) and finished some college.”

His brother Chris is studying engineering at the University of Minnesota.

“My brother went on and

got straight A’s all the way through high school,” Bill said.

Touvi said his daughters, who are in high school and middle school, don’t face the same challenges as his generation.

“Now you have some very successful people who can comfortably guide young people along the way,” he said. “My kids, they’re pretty much just melded into the American melting pot.”

Stake in the community

More Hmong families began arriving in the years after Hawj came with his family. Soon, he was able to team with four Hmong men to form the Lao Family Community of Minnesota, a benevolent association dedicated to helping the Hmong learn English and get established in the community.

Hawj moved to St. Paul in 1978, when his parents arrived, and in 1981 pooled funds with 10 families to open the state’s first Hmong grocery store near Rice Street and Pennsylvania Avenue.

They later opened a second store north of the state Capitol building.

“I paid back every partner their fair share,” he recalled.

Each family had lent him $10,000, which Hawj doubts would happen today, given the divisions within the community.

Lao Family, which nearly lost its University Avenue headquarters to foreclosure, has been embroiled in repeated lawsuits between current and former board members.

“There’s fighting within Lao Family, so they don’t trust each other,” Hawj said. “We considered it a family, so we loved each other, we trusted each other and we helped each other out as family. Now there’s more politics and financial conflicts.”

He’s seen other changes.

In Laos, families went door to door throughout their villages for New Year’s, joining each other like a traveling caravan of well-wishers.

When Hawj helped found the Hmong New Year’s gatherings in Minnesota, the community rented out a Catholic church in North St. Paul for a giant meal more reminiscent of an American Thanksgiving - a gathering of survivors.

These days, there are two competing Hmong New Year’s events in the Twin Cities. The events are made up of vendors, talent shows, beauty pageants and even courtship rituals.

Hawj sees it as less personal, but his wife calls the gatherings the perfect opportunity for young people to meet future spouses.

“Right now, people are working. Everyone’s not rich, but they have more money,” Shoua said. “It’s not like Laos. They do it good now.”

The Pioneer Press is a Forum News Service media partner.


2185635+120615.N.STP_.HMONGFAMILY2.jpg
Dang and Shoua Hawj, center, with their family in an old photo. They are the first Hmong couple to arrive in the U.S. and they are approaching the 40th anniversary of that date in 1975. They now live in Maple Grove. (Pioneer Press: Jean Pieri)

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