Xong Xiong | La Crosse, WI
My main memory of that place was that I was free. Even though I was confined to the one-mile radius of the camp with 45,000 other refugees, I felt free because I was safe.
When Hmong folks were resettled in Wisconsin after the Vietnam war, many came to the Coulee region around La Crosse because the bluffs and the river reminded them of home. The churches resettled a few families here, and those people sponsored their families from Laos and Thailand. My older sister and her husband came here first, sponsored by a church, and when they had been here long enough, they sponsored the rest of us. Today there are more than 6,000 Hmong folks in the Coulee region.
I’ve always worked in the Hmong community. I first started volunteering at the Hmong Center when I was a teenager. In college, I started working with Hmong women at a local women’s shelter. I think that Hmong culture is really patriarchal. If you want to do anything outside of being a wife and mother, it’s frowned upon. There’s a mindset of girls being inferior because they don’t carry the clan name. There’s a Hmong saying that “you raise a girl to give away.” There were a lot of things as I was growing up that I didn’t think were fair, and so I began to challenge those things. Recognizing that there was a lot of unfairness in valuing one gender over the other motivated me from a really young age.
I think the combination of being born into a refugee camp and being poor and scared was a driving force for me. It gave me the courage to get an education and eventually start a nonprofit that serves Hmong women. I remember coming to this strange country as a child and not knowing anything. I had these big fears, I didn’t have control over my life, and there were many things I didn’t understand. I was afraid I could get AIDS and die. Not understanding how AIDS was transmitted and not having an adult to explain it to me was terrifying because I thought that at any moment I could die because I came into contact with someone who had HIV. My whole life was like that. There was no adult to explain to me why I shouldn’t be scared of those things. I came from a background where my parents couldn’t calm my fears.
I felt like my whole life was out of control all the time. One way I felt I could control my life and the things around me was through learning and understanding things for myself. I’d say to myself, ‘OK I don’t understand that. How am I going to learn? Who can teach me this?’ In a lot of ways, loving to learn and going to school saved my life. I went to undergrad at UW-La Crosse. I earned both a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in education. My training is in educational foundations, but it aligns really well with my current work at Cia Siab, because a lot of what we do is about teaching folks how to look at their lives—and make changes so that things don’t repeat themselves in the next generation.
I founded Cia Siab, Inc. about four years ago to provide services for the Hmong community, especially for women, girls, and LGBTQ folks who have always been disenfranchised in the Hmong community. We serve victims of domestic abuse, assisting with things like translation and interpreting when clients are going into court. We have ten Hmong advocates that work with us and help women do restraining orders or file for divorces. We can help them get into shelter if that’s what’s needed, or if they need crisis intervention done right away. Right now, because of Covid, we are also getting them groceries if they’re in quarantine, getting them medicines if they can’t go to the store, things like that. It makes a difference for the Hmong women who come to us that we speak their language and understand their culture. They often avoid mainstream services because they find it traumatizing to have to explain the cultural differences. Not only do they have to talk about the violence in their lives, but they also feel like they have to explain why it looks different. Many avoid asking for help because of the fear of not being understood.
I have a ten-year-old daughter, Nkauj Ntsuab, and she really inspires me to work harder because I want to build a more equitable world where she has the same opportunities as everybody else. I think that has really motivated me to dig deeper at root causes of violence in our communities in a way that will be more forward-thinking and more grounded in who we are. It inspires me to work harder to build a better world for my daughter, a world that I didn’t have access to.
The concern for a just and equitable world is a driving force for me. That’s why I do the work I do. It feeds my soul. I feel like the world has to get better. Otherwise, what is the purpose of our being here if we don’t want to make things better for the future?