Pa Der Vang: Mother, College Professor, and Hmong Refugee

Mohamed Malim Refugee Stories

I was born in July 1975 in a refugee camp.  My parents fled the war, towards the end of the Vietnam War in May 1975.  It ended on April 30th, so they escaped and arrived on a helicopter over the border into a Thai refugee camp, where I was born.  Along with my older brother, my parents came to the US in February 1976 or so, when I was six months old.  I was not able to stand yet.  The process to be a refugee in America was grueling, my parents had to submit their names as a refugee and requested for a new location.  At that time, there were many fellow refugees that were being relocated and we were one of the lucky ones.  We arrived in Montana and started our new life in America, where my father became a janitor in a high school and my mother, a seamstress, sewing backpack gears among other things.  We lived in Montana for fourteen years where I went to school there.  Then, we moved to Fresno in California when I was fourteen.  Most the population was white in Montana, there were only about 200 Hmong families.  As such, we experienced a lot of racism.

Growing up in the US, I was not aware of my race until I came into close contact with white people.  They treated me differently when I was in school and that was when I knew that they saw me as inferior.  People would spray paint our house, call us derogatory names like ‘gook’ and ‘chink’.  At the back of my mind, this impacted me for much of my life.  At some point, I even wanted to be white.  I wanted so badly to fit in, have all white friends and be a normal girl.  I never felt like I was good enough to be accepted by white Americans.  There were many negative assumptions about refugees -- uneducated, lazy, backward, being on welfare, men having multiple wives… and the list goes on.  People tended to put us into a stereotype box and only view us through that narrow lens.  Living in America, there were many instances where people taunted me for my identity.  One day, I took my daughter to sample a lactose-free vitamin.  I asked where I could get it to which the assistant replied that I could get it from a food shelf.  At that time, I was pursuing my Master’s degree and making $60,000 a year so someone assumed that I was poor and needed welfare or assistance.  It was in that moment where I realized I wanted to empower refugees like me in a time full of political tension, hate, and bigotry.  Education needs to change right now -- white people are always trained on how to work with people of color but people of color should also be educated on how to deal with racism.  Whenever there is an incidence of racism or oppression, most of the time money is poured on the white majority to teach them on how not to be racist.  On the other hand, people of color, the recipients of bigotry are left to lick their wounds. There is no support system and the education needs to switch.  And there are multiple ways to approach this:  teaching people of color on how to deal with the physical and mental effects of racism, what their legal rights are, legislation and so forth.  

My definition of success is that I followed my passion.  If you are dedicated enough, over a period, you can be an expert in your field.  Do not be a jack of all trades, focus on one skill and aim to perfect it.  People of color experience a lot of barriers to pursuing their dreams but I could break down those structural barriers.  I strongly believe that education is key and a network of support, especially from various social circles.  Education is a source of power for us minorities so the white majority do not have a reason to criticize us.  We also need to be more financially savvy and learn to manage our money.  Budgeting and investing are vital skills to be equipped with so that not only us, but our children will be better off.  To me, these are practices we must do now to plan for ten, twenty years down the road.  Money and education gives us an advantage in society.  Since I came to this country, one of my biggest accomplishments was being independent.  I could be free and independent of others and of course, attain my education.  Not only did I want to be immersed in American society, I also wanted to be in tune with my ethnicity and culture.  In this way, I hoped to use both of my backgrounds to my advantage.  Being bicultural has molded my values, goals, and outlook on life. 

In this era where there is so much instability in other countries, America is special.  Right now, it offers many solutions for refugees and former refugees like me, such as social services, job training and housing support.  Most importantly, refugees should build strong communities with one another.  When I first came, we would be dispersed all over the country.  The government had the idea of assimilation in mind but also wanted to keep some of us together, for example, the relatively large Hmong community in St. Paul and Fresno.  This helps us to build networks and friends which leads to better overall mental health and boosts the confidence of refugees and minorities.  In a way, this arrangement is also an advantage to Americans as it helps to diversify a certain area.  

Lastly, my advice to new refugees in a new country would be to hold onto their culture and never forget their country of origin.  Language is important, maintain it and fight for it.  Be proud of yourself and your fellow refugees that you made it this far.


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