Making a Home in “a Whole Different World”

I was born in a refugee camp in Thailand. My people are called Hmong. We left China about 3,400 years before we settle in Laos. Most of our people were farmers. We lived in the mountains and jungles.

“This is the only photo of me from the refugee camp. You can see electricity in the photo, but it was just for the Thai office, not for the Hmong." [Lee is pictured on the far right. She was born in 1980.] Photo courtesy of Lee Lo

Lee Lo | Wausau, WI

“During the Vietnam War, the American CIA came and asked us to help them because our people were really good in the jungles, because that’s where we lived. We fought along with the CIA all along the way until the American left Laos.

My dad fought alongside the Americans. After the war it was too dangerous for my family to stay in Laos. We were called traitors because we helped the USA

A lot of our people were tortured, murdered, killed. To be able to survive, we left Laos. A lot of our people were dying crossing the Mekong River going to Thailand. After my family got settled in Thailand, that’s when I was born and raised up in the refugee camp.

Growing up as a young girl in the camp was difficult. I remember carrying water for miles and miles to my home. We don’t have electricity or running water. I never go to school, learn how to read or write. Never really have dreams, or hope. I don’t know that the world was so big. I only see, like, fence around me with soldiers with guns.

We had a big warehouse for us for shelter. We lived in a really small room with 10 people and just two beds. We had to squeeze in, we sleep with our parents, with our brothers, sisters because there’s no space.

Finding food is also difficult. The Americans send us some food through a big truck. I remember waiting in line for the whole day to get food. It was very hot. Sometimes the food is spoiled. Some people they were going outside the camp, outside the fence to try to get more food. That’s where a girl got raped. Men got tortures because we are not supposed to do that, but when you’re hungry, you don’t have enough food, what can you do? We did that for a long time until we realize it is too dangerous.

When I was nine, I remember my little brother was really, really sick. We did a lot of shamanisms and were hoping that he’ll get better, but he’s not doing well and he is basically dying. At the camp they had this little tent set up with medical supplies. We take him there. I remember the people there have this red cross on their hat. I remember seeing them come and help us. They are holding my brother, give him some shots and medicines. They gave me some vitamins.

I look at them and I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh. They are angels. What are they doing here to help people like us?’ Because growing up in the refugee camp you’re not being treated well. You always feel like you’re not equal or have the rights like every other people.

Seeing these women coming to camp to help my dying brother and give him medicines; I thought they were like angels.

They were so caring and showing compassion to my people. I just look at them and I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ If there is really next life, I want to be like one of these girls.”

Growing up in Thailand, I never pictured myself coming to America because my family hoped that someday we can return in Laos safely. My parents always talk about Laos and how beautiful it is and that they had their own land, they raised their own cows and horses and pigs and chickens.

In 1993, my dad had gone missing for a week and we really did not know where he is; we couldn’t find him. Later we found out that the Thai government imprisoned him because our family refused to leave Thailand. They give us two options: option one is going back to Laos, which we can’t because my dad fought during the Vietnam War with the American CIA, so if we are to go back, my whole family will get executed.

Option two is to come into America. My family really want to go back to Laos, but after my dad was in prison for about three months, my family decided that is enough because life is difficult and we won’t survive without my dad. So we all decide we are going to America. My Dad was sent to America before us.

When I found out I was going to leave, I didn’t have a chance to say goodbye to my friends at all. My brother came and say, ‘Hey Lee, you better pack because we’re are going to America.’ I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m going to miss my friends.’ I was so depressed. We were moved to another camp where we stayed for a year getting ready, basically just doing paperwork.

At that camp some people came and do a little education with us and tell us how America is going to be like. I remember they show us like pictures, beautiful tall building, flowers, beaches and parks. I’m like, ‘Wow!’ I never know anything about America until now, it’s so beautiful, and that got me excited that I’m going to come to a beautiful place. The first thing that came to my mind was, like, ‘Man, this looks like heaven.’

Finally we came to America. We settle at Central Wisconsin because most of our families are here. My half-sister was here, and my dad was here, of course.

When we arrived in Wisconsin, it was the middle of winter. It’s like everything is, like, snow white and wonderland white.

When we walked out of the airport and I looked outside and I whispered to my mom, I say, ‘Mom, I don’t think this is America. They probably just drop us somewhere where people don’t want to lived.’

I was wearing sandals, shorts, and a t-shirt. I walked outside and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I don’t think this is America.’ [laughs]

I never even knew snow exist because it’s so hot in Thailand, the weather is 90 to 100 degrees over there. I thought the whole world is like that. I don’t know what snow is. I never experienced that in my whole life until the day we got here to Wisconsin.”

Become part of the Love Wisconsin

Photo courtesy of Lee Lo

“When we settle in Wausau in 1994, everything was new to my family. I remember we lived in an apartment. We don’t know how to do the laundry. We wash our clothes and put them outside and they would all freeze.

I remember the priest and some of the church people, they would come in and help us. We learn about the laundromat. Our neighbor, she bring us a sofa. People take us to see the doctor. So many people in the community were so kind.

When we lived in the refugee camp we don’t have the opportunity to go to school. I never learned how to read or write. Coming to America, I was surprised to find out that as a woman or a minority, you have a chance to go to school. I did not know that until we arrived here. When I found out, I got really excited. I take school very seriously, but it was still a challenge for me because English was a new language for me.

My first teacher, Ms. Kuether, she played a big role in my life. Even though I was 14, I started at the middle school right after we come to Wisconsin. It was the winter. I only have sandals.

I went to school not having socks or a jacket. She said, ‘Are you cold? Do you have a coat?’ 'No, I don't.' She took me after school to buy a jacket, clothes, socks, and shoes. She show me how to ride a bus home. She said, ‘I will make sure that you get home safely.’ She helped me to adjust to living here and she inspire me to learn.

I think for me coming here to a new world, it feel like I am falling between two cultures. Growing up in Thailand as a Hmong teenager at age 13 and 14, you were taught to get married, have kids, and raise a family. When we came to America, you go to school, you are taught that education is important, they say you are still a kid. My teachers are saying, ‘You are smart, you can go to college.’

I met my husband when I was 15 at Wausau East High School. We were dating and my mom, she say, ‘Oh, you need to get married now. You’re getting old. What if he change his mind? It’s time for you start having a family.’ So, I got married and at 16 I had my first child.

It felt like, I’m so embarrassed going to school pregnant. Because that is kind of like a taboo at school and kids tease you. But when I come home, it’s okay. In our culture, it’s acceptable. I kind of got lost between the two worlds. I was depressed. I was like, ‘I don’t which side to go,’ you know. But after a while, I learn how to accept Hmong culture and accept the culture here. You just have to move on.

In high school I had three kids. I worked to provide for my family, and I worked hard for my grades. I had a dream to be a nurse one day. But with my young kids and family, I did not believe this dream is possible.”

Photo courtesy of Lee Lo

“During high school, I met Mr. Hagge. He was my ESL [English as a Second Language] teacher at Wausau East High School. I learned so much from him.

I told Mr. Hagge about the women from the refugee camp from the Red Cross who helped my family. Because of them, I always wanted to be a nurse. But I also told him I have three kids and I am married, I don’t think I can do it.

Mr Hagge says, ‘No, young lady. That is not an excuse for you not to go to college just because you have kids and are married. Even when you have four or five children, you can still go to school.‘ He make it sound so funny and so believable, too.

In high school, science was not a problem for me because I love it. I found out that there are all these chemicals, I learn about life and biology. It is all so interesting to me. When I got an A on one of my biology tests, my biology teacher could not believe it.

He was like, ‘You barely speak English. How do you get A in this class?’ He even called Mr. Hagge and he said, ‘Your student, Lee, she can barely speak English in my class. I don’t know how she got an A on this test.’

Mr Hagge was like, ‘Lee, come see me after school.’ I got so scared. I thought, ‘Oh my god, what's going on?’ I went there. He gave me a big hug. He said, ‘I'm so proud of you. Out of all my students, you got an A?

You just came here from Thailand and you got a A in your biology class. Even some students, they were born here and have a hard time. You got A in your biology test.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s good news!’ He said, ‘See? I know you can do it!’

In high school I got As and Bs. C wasn’t acceptable for me. Sometimes I would talk to the teacher if I got a C. ‘Can I come after school and retake a test? Can I study more? Can I do extra credit?’ I always keep trying to get an A or B, because that’s what I aim for.

Mr. Hagge helped me to see how I could be a nurse. He walked me through everything. ‘Lee, this is what you need to do to get to nursing school.’ He told me about Northcentral Technical College. That’s how I found out that I can go to college right in town instead of leaving my family. He help me apply for college scholarships, he tell me about a daycare program for low income families.

He had a way to make me believe that I can do it. That’s what kept me going every day. I have someone who believes that I can do it. I have someone who believes in me. Then I started to believe that I can do it, too.

I got the scholarships and after high school, I started on my dream to become a nurse. I enrolled in nursing school at Northcentral Technical College [NTC] in Wausau.”

Photo courtesy of Lee Lo

“During nursing school, I worked two jobs, I went to school and I raise four kids. I worked as a CNA, a nursing assistant at the hospital. My coworkers always say, ‘How do you do this? You have four kids and you’re in nursing school and it’s so hard. Even for us, American who speak the language here, it is still difficult for us. How do you do that?’ and I’m like, ‘I don’t know. You just have to find a way. You just have to believe what you’re fighting for or what you wanted to do.’ I really, really want to be a nurse and that’s what I believe, that I can make it happen.

My first two years at Northcentral Technical College, I basically just learned how to read and write English better. When I was in nursing school I faced a lot of challenges because medical technology was just a whole different world.

Also in college, either you get it or you fail. Classes are hard. In high school I get all As and Bs, but in college, sometimes I have to accept a C. Sometimes I even fail the classes. But I’m like, as long as NTC not kicking me out, I’m coming back again. I keep working. I go back and take the classes again. It took me six years to get my nursing degree.

When I graduate, it was like a dream come true. It’s something that I feel was the biggest achievement in my life. When I lived in Thailand, I never had dreams that I can have a job or go to school and have a career. Now that I graduate, I’m a nurse. That is something that I can be really proud of.”

Photo by Megan Monday

“After graduation from nursing school, I worked at the hospital. We learned my dad got cancer. So, I took off work for a year to take care for my dad. Caring for my dad was emotionally difficult. My dad doesn’t speak English and because I’m in the medical field, he had a lot of hopes for me that I would be there to interpret for him and communicate the medical world to him. As a nurse I knew that his cancer, he’s on stage four, he doesn’t have much time to live.

I really want to be there to support my dad. But it was a big challenge for our family, we had four kids and financially it was very difficult. I was with my dad so much, I did not have much time to be with my family.

After my dad passed away, I wanted to do something to help people who experienced what my dad went through and what I went through. I wanted to do something to make a difference in the community. My husband and I, we decided to open our own home healthcare business.

What we do is we help patients and families. We send a personal caregiver to take care of the patients in the home. Many of our patients are Hmong; they often don’t know the importance of taking medication or follow up with their doctor’s appointments. Our caregivers help them with medical care in the home and make sure they get to appointments or get emergency care when they need it.

When we first started our business, it’s only me and my secretary, and now after a several years we have over 150 personal caregivers and three nurses. I knew that I always wanted to be a nurse, but I never dreamed of owning my own business. I am grateful we can help so many people in our community.” 

Photo by Megan Monday

“When my husband and I got married in high school, we just did a little ceremony. Later on I found out that Americans, they all have these wonderful weddings, they’re wearing a white dress and walking down the aisle with flowers and I’m like, ‘My gosh! I really want one like that.’ I’m like, ‘But because I already married, I’m not going to have a chance to do that any more.’ Then I found out, hey, later on for an anniversary you can do something like that.

So, during our 18 years anniversary, my husband and I, we threw a huge ceremony, like a vow renewal and also a celebration. At that time I also was nominated to serve on the Northcentral Technical College Board, which is a big honor.

My family was very proud. We planned this big party. We invite the whole town, the whole community. I was sitting, talking to my husband and said, ‘I’m feeling really lucky to be where I am today and without my teachers, I don’t think I can be where I am today. Would it be okay with you if we honor my teachers at our party, too, because I believe that without them I would not be where I am,’ and my husband said, ‘Yeah, I feel the same way, too. Let’s do that.’

I called my teachers, Mr. Hagge and Miss. Keuther, and I say, ‘I’m doing this 18th anniversary party and I wonder if you guys can stop by for an hour or so.’ I was surprised they said yes. They came to our anniversary and I don’t think they know that I was going to honor them.

At the party I called them to the stage. I said to them, ‘I could not be standing here without the unconditional love and support from you.’

We gave them proclamations to appreciate their hard work and compassion. They were very surprised, but they were really happy. My teacher, Alice Kuether, she’s kind of teary and she said, ‘Oh my gosh! Really this is something,’ and she said, ‘You came a long way.’ And Mr. Hagge gave me a big hug and he say, ‘Look at where you are today compared to when I first had you in my freshman class in high school. I’m so proud of you.’ I was so happy to honor my teachers in front of the whole community.

When I was growing up in Thailand, I never pictured myself going to school, being a nurse, or being a businesswoman. This is like…I won’t say it’s a dream because I don’t have a dream like this over there, but this life, here in America, in Central Wisconsin, this feels like a miracle.”

-Lee Lo | Wausau, WI

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