Yee Leng Xiong | Wausau, WI
Hearing my parents talk about their struggles and sacrifices, both during their journeys escaping war-torn Laos and making a new life in America, inspires me to do work in public service, especially refugee resettlement work.
My parents were born in Laos. At the time of the Vietnam War when American soldiers pulled out of Laos, thousands of Hmong families who fought as allies and had been recruited by the U.S. military had to fend for themselves against the Viet Cong enemies. Those who were lucky to make it alive to Thai refugee camps were able to flee to America, with the first wave of Hmong families coming here in the mid-1970s. In the early 1980s, my father realized a lot of our Hmong leaders had left Laos, and our family needed to come to the United States to be closer to their relatives and start a new life. But the journey was difficult.
After American soldiers pulled out of the Vietnam War, my dad bribed some relatives and Hmong families to gain their trust and formulate an escape plan as a group by foot. Should they encounter the Viet Cong enemies along the way, their backup plan was to return back to Laos. About 30 Hmong people ended up making that journey through the jungles of Laos, including my dad, mom, grandma, grandpa, uncle, aunt, and my older brother. They survived on the little food that they had – rice and jerky. When food ran out, they resorted to foraging and eating plant roots.
Within the first few days of their journey, my aunt stepped on a landmine. My dad saw the horrifying explosion that took her life. He said she likely died before she even knew what happened. The impact and aftermath of the explosion still haunts him to this day.
My mom and dad can still recall hearing the sound of the Mekong River, a very long, mile-wide river that meant life and death for thousands of Hmong families as they attempted to escape war-torn Laos and flee into Thai refugee camps on the other side. As soon as the group got close, one of the leaders of the group pulled everyone aside and said, ‘Hey, we need you guys to be quiet because we are now getting very close to a communist outpost guarded by the Viet Congs.’ My older brother, who was just a toddler at the time, was crying because he wasn’t feeling well due to a fever. One of the group leaders came up to my parents and said, ‘We need you to feed opium to your son to make him quiet and go to sleep, or we will leave you behind and you will fend for yourselves. We’re only giving you these two choices.’ My parents couldn’t do anything, so they ended up surrendering my older brother to the group leaders, who fed him opium to make him go to sleep.
As they trekked through the jungle and got closer to the Mekong River, my mom noticed my older brother was no longer breathing. He died from being overdosed. My mom told me she cried, but there were no tears. She wanted to scream several times, but she couldn’t because she knew if she did, it would give away their location to the Viet Cong. My parents mourned in silence. They buried my older brother by the side of the Mekong River, and they hid near the shores of the river until nightfall.
Crossing the Mekong River at night made it harder for the Viet Cong to see and shoot people trying to swim across. But, crossing it at night also posed its challenges. Separating Laos and Thailand, the Mekong River is about one-mile wide. To get there meant swimming against the raging currents, dodging bullets fired from the Viet Cong’s enemies, and weaving through dead bodies of Hmong people who were shot while in the water. My parents used bamboo shoots as floating devices to keep near each other and prevent one from being carried away by the current. By the time they reached the shores of Thailand, it was nearly nightfall. They knew they had reached safety away from the enemies since the Viet Cong could not cross into Thai territory. My parents and the group walked to the refugee camps, not knowing what the future held and what would become of their lives.
The camps served as their temporary home for the next three years until 1983 when my mom’s brother sponsored them to come to America. They first landed in Utah. That’s where home has been since for my family and also where my own journey began.
Making a new life in America was very hard for my parents. They told me their first job was digging and picking out nightcrawlers from the ground at Marathon Park and selling them for extra money to put food on the table. They struggled to have kids at first but were able to give birth to my older sister. They had me in 1994 and then later my three brothers and younger sister. We were all born in Wausau and have lived here since.
During my senior year of high school, I was elected to be the president of the YCLA club, which stood for ‘Youth Cultural Leaders of America.’ I remember in the cafeteria, there was a big Hmong cultural tapestry. A lot of Hmong students had contributed to it by weaving together story cloths to make this larger-than-life Hmong quilt. Then a dance team’s banner was hung in front, covering it. Several Hmong students approached me and said, ‘Yee, you represent the leadership of the Hmong student community. We need you to say something about it to the dance group.’
At first, I was hesitant because I didn’t think voicing anything would result in any action. Eventually, I built up the courage and went to talk with the dance coach, explaining to her how this was hurtful to a lot of the Hmong students. She took it very seriously, and the team removed the banner the next day. My taking action when I didn’t think it would result in anything turned out to be motivating since the coach listened to me and took action.
I graduated high school from DC Everest in 2012 and attended what was then the former UW-Marathon County. I left college to pursue work in public service, first working at the local women’s community center and then at various public policy agencies. In 2016, I joined the Hmong American Center as a staff member. One year later, I took the executive director role.
I have dedicated my life to giving back to the community and serving as the voice for many Southeast Asian and underrepresented folks. My parents’ journey fleeing their homeland during the Vietnam War and their struggles raising me and my siblings in America gives me great resolve to do better for people in need, especially for refugees resettling in the area. Marathon County was one of the first counties in Wisconsin that received Afghan refugees in early 2022. I want to make sure they are set up for success so they don’t have to go through the same type of disparities that my parents and countless other Hmong families have had to experience living a new life in a new country.
I can remember growing up as my parents’ interpreters. They didn’t understand or read in English. I was a kid, still learning the English language myself, and yet, here I was, holding this big responsibility of translating legal and medical documents from Hmong to English. At times, I had no idea what those documents said, but I did my best. Having experienced that and knowing the amount of stress that caused me, I knew I didn’t want other young people to experience the same thing.
The journeys of refugees can be different, but they’re also very similar. Hmong and Afghan refugees both fled their homeland to avoid persecution from aiding the American military during war and conflict. One of the things Hmong folks have told our agency when they resettled in the U.S. is that they weren’t well received. There were a lot of misconceptions and misperceptions about the Hmong people, like how they were the enemies during of the Vietnam War and that’s why they shouldn’t be here in America.
Hmong people have had to do a lot of cultural building and explaining that they were actually allies to the U.S. and assisted American soldiers with navigation of the jungles, translations, and many other things during the war. This is something I don’t want our Afghan refugees to have to go through, so our agency and several community partners have worked hard to educate the public about their stories and experiences.
I have dedicated 100% of my life in public service, helping the community and mentoring dozens of youth. I give a lot of credit to my parents’ sacrifices and journey to America that have inspired me to help others.
There is a saying in the Hmong language that one day, if you elevate to a higher position, please turn back and help those that are behind. I think about that phrase and use it on a daily basis. I look at the Hmong American Center’s role in the recent refugee resettlements. I am reminded that whenever we elevate to a higher position, we need to utilize what we’ve learned – our skills, our tools – to help our community members in need. No matter where we are in life here, there’s always something to give, whether it’s your knowledge, your time, your effort, or money. We just need to continue to give and help everybody. It’s not a handout, but rather a hand up.
Hmong families began arriving in the United States in 1975 as refugees of the Secret War in Laos. Today, about 4.5% of the global Hmong population lives in the United States. To learn more about the Hmong community check out this Chippewa Valley Museum exhibit.