My name is Vayong Moua. I was part of an early wave of Hmong refugees. I came to this country when I was just one-year-old 1976. I came to this country with no shoes on my feet. I didn't have shoes. You can see me my brother without shoes, my mother with my sister in the womb, just stepping off a plane. We were the first family in Eau Claire Wisconsin.
Hmong people were nomadic Hill tribe in the mountains of Laos. We had no nation-state. We had no citizenship, but because of where we resided along a critical Supply trail called the Ho Chi Minh trail. We were recruited illegally by the CIA to become a surrogate Guerrilla Army. We were part of this covert operation. Nobody was supposed to be in Laos. The CIA approached my people with guns, medicine, protection. Sure enough, Laos falls to communism, so does Vietnam. Hmong people were seen as traitors fighting for a foreign power. The Communists declared genocide, persecution on might people. We flee to Thailand and from there we came to the United States, but in summary Hmong people were caught up in a global Cold War and we were just these tragic pawns. We were used to fight against the fear of a domino effect of Communism.
I think it's important to understand that refugees are not just a charity case. We are a direct outcome of United States foreign policy.
The public needs to understand there are a direct cause and effect. American interests and impact that created refugees. I lost my grandparents. I never got to meet my grandfather. One thing I do want to highlight is the importance of having equitable policies and the impact that has on refugees.
I think growing up in Eau Claire you couldn't imagine a more different physical and social environment than the Highland mountains and jungles of Laos to flat cold Midwestern climate.
I want to be mindful that there were very noble, kind people who received us, who took care of us. The Trinity Lutheran Church were amazing hosts and sponsors, but I would be remiss not to acknowledge the concerns that even the church, that the community had. One of the first things my parents were told was you may feel that some people may not welcome you, they may mistake you for being Japanese and have resentment because of World War Two, or even Korean because of the Korean War. My mother was astonished. She wondered why they would be afraid of us. She just lost her father. We just fought for the country with them. Why would there be any confusion? There wasn't a full grasp that this was covert operations, a secret war, and the public was way behind the truth of the matter. You amplify that with the pre-existing personal, interpersonal, structural racism already in this country.
The arrival in Wisconsin I think was a spectrum and I want to make sure I acknowledge both beauty and triumph in that. And the tragedy and the difficulties and the adversity built into that experience.
There's just a flood of stories and memories that come to mind. I clearly remember being in a grocery store and my mother taking out her food stamps. it was taking us longer to pay for groceries. We have limited English and people in line were staring at us. One lady said to my mother “go back to your country you chink, gook” all these racial slurs. I didn't even understand what go back to your country meant. I thought I was as American Pie, this is my home, but I didn't quite understand as a child what that meant. I saw people spit in my parent’s faces. Throw soda at them. A lot of these daily occurrences of very personal and direct racism. It wasn't because we came here to be these leeches of the system or to create a public charge. We were displaced from our homeland, people were devastated, and we were given false promises.
I had a very prosperous, loving family, a strong community and network but I would be remiss not to recall those things. Unfortunately, it's relevant today.
The greatest impact is this deep appreciation and understanding of my ancestry as well as my future descendants. part of that is just culture coming from a Hmong community that fosters intergenerational relationships and connections.
That's kind of built into who we are but our political story amplifies this sense of diaspora and global dispersion. my people up to 1975 the year was a fairly isolated nomadic people. you go from like living in nomadic hills and go all over the world. that has never happened in millennia for my people. so that's very striking to me that I'm part of that global diaspora of my people.
now with an expecting child and a young child. I'm more mindful, I guess, of time and the passage of it and the anticipation of future time. the refugee experience doesn't allow you to take for granted Homeland or even just the present moment. my community doesn't have this political form and idea of
individualism. It doesn't deny the individual, but it sees these individuals in relation to, their family, to their community, to their Village. you look across a lot of people of color and Indigenous community. and Refugee communities, it's a very balanced sense of Individuals with family and the broader society. there's a sense of shared Prosperity.
my daughter's name is Ishi. What I would say to Ishi and what I try to instill in Ishi is this ancestor energy. Not just a recognition but a sense of power, the power in her roots and in her wings to go deep on who she is, where she came from, and not only in a reflective way, but also in a way that will give her resiliency fortitude to encounter all the isms and especially is racism in her life that she will inevitably face.
The anchoring of that strength will be in having an understanding of her cultural identity. Some advice I would offer her and honestly all refugees is once you've done the hard in-reach, you can develop cross-cultural relationships. You can only do that genuinely and effectively if your roots are strong. They do that too soon and It's flimsy, it's going to wobble, and it's not based on anything. I don't think it needs to be super linear, but I would do want her to understand that her oppression and her prosperity is deeply connected to other refugee communities and immigrants, to all people who face systemic inequities. The LGBT community, disability community, so that we can honor and embrace our unique identity while integrating and expanding our alliances with understanding.
My definition of success is living up to my values through making sure that I have a courageous process that I can connect myself to, I can connect my biography, to my history. That I can live up to the potential that was sacrificed for me.
the well-known phrase that “we are our ancestors’ wildest dreams”. I take that very seriously because it's very clear to me. I can see in my immediate ancestry the sacrifices, the struggle, the hopes, the dreams. Right when I graduated from college, I didn't think that much of it. My dad said that's not in your degree, that’s my degree.”
I knew from an early start no matter whether I was going to work in the environmental movement or health or education or whatever. I knew for sure. It had involved transforming policies and systems. it had involved organizing community power. Let's go fight for indigenous rights in South America. Let's go fight against environmental degradation.
My sense of accomplishment is more about ensuring I take a certain approach to things as not to minimize outcomes or destinations. It's more about my way of being, my way of living.
I want to make sure we are making an impact. working with and within people power. that's my sense of accomplishment.
You have to serve the people, serve your community, and yet doing it in a way that isn't just through direct service or programs. It gave me a clear sense of it's not enough to just want to do good things, you have to acknowledge and embrace the importance of power.
what we're up against is inequities in power. Not just inequities in single issues, but equities in power. I think what my parents instilled in me early on was you have to change the way tables are being designed. You cannot just go after single issues. Realize those are not the root causes.
To make sure that as to advance the equity of immigrants, refugees, we have to be involved in key decision making that impacts our communities.
You need to know who you are so that when you define your place, you're doing it on your terms, not to accommodate or just fit in. I don't want Immigrants and refugees to assimilate I want them to acculturate. there's a difference; assimilation you're becoming more and more similar. acculturation is more, you're adapting your culture to connect and relate with others, without displacing who you are. but to do that you have to go deep. so that when you become American, you're doing it on your terms and not on white standards. but beyond that personal, Self-discovery, and definition, you have to get involved. you have to be civically engaged. it's about seeing yourself as the policymaker. No matter where you are. and seeing yourself as a critical change agent.Whether you're going into Communications, or government, or educate, whatever field, you understand that you have the ability and accountability to change the way things are being done so that Immigrants refugees are not treated as amenities and afterthoughts. that will give you the fortitude to enter any profession and more discipline in a way that gives you the skills and the sensibility to think and act for immigrants and refugees and it makes you a change agent in those in those fields.