Manila Kue fled Laos in 1975, when she was just six years old, on one of the few flights the United States military offered to Hmong soldiers and their families from the war-torn country to safety in Thailand.
"We were on the very last plane out of Laos," she recounts from her light-filled office at the Kajsiab House, a facility that promotes mental health care for the Hmong on Madison's north side. We were being pushed onto the plane, everybody was shoving everybody …
Forty years ago, the first group of Hmong immigrants left their homes and families in Southeast Asia for an uncertain future in the United States.
The Hmong who now call the Madison area home may face discrimination, barriers to education and employment and the monumental task of bridging two distinct cultures.
Yet within this difficult framework, the Hmong have fostered a vibrant community and impacted the broader region.
We were just trying to survive." Kue's father, who was a police chief in Laos, began working as a forklift driver for a company in Sheboygan that made cooking oil. I remember my dad coming home one day and putting his head down on his knees.
I thought he was sick or tired, but looking back, I think he was depressed." Watching those changes in her parents was hard, and Kue concedes that starting a new life here "was pretty traumatizing. '"Kue's brother, Xiong Kue, and his wife, See Kue, also arrived in 1976.
and it started rolling away."Kue made it on board, but her father, pregnant mother and younger sisters and brothers couldn't get onto the plane.
"I was at the refugee camp in Thailand for a few months with my older brothers and sisters, not knowing if I would ever see my family again," she says.In America, she rebelled against Hmong customs by remaining single, going to college, dating a man who is not Hmong, and now, at 32, running a state agency as director of the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans.Nkauj Hmoob – The Youth Advocate co-facilitates this bi-monthly gathering for Hmong girls from the community, ages 12-19 years old. See Kue, now fifty-seven, and her family were sponsored by a Lutheran church in the Sheboygan area, a place vastly different from what they had expected. As local Hmong scholar Phillip Yang says, "We have no home."The earliest record of the Hmong people dates back to about 2700 BC in China, where roughly 2.7 million Hmong still live.They are traditionally subsistence farmers, practicing slash-and-burn agriculture, where the forest is cleared and then burned to release nutrients into the soil.The goal for this program is to engage the girls in deeper discussions on making healthy life decisions, to increase academic achievement, and to build self-esteem while maintaining cultural and racial identity.