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isisrastafari
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« on: April 09, 2004, 09:10:13 PM »

Growing up a refugee
Ka Vang
Minnesota Women's Press
April 7-20, 2004

In my last column I invited readers to ask me about my experiences as a Hmong refugee and several of them did. In light of a new wave of Hmong refugees from Wat Tham Krabok, Thailand, arriving to the Twin Cities in the fall, it seems appropriate that I talk about the six years of my life spent in a refugee camp in Thailand. Especially for those naysayers who feel that Hmong people shouldn’t come here. They think that because of Minnesota’s soft economy—with no jobs, no government money and war—the refugees should go to Wisconsin or California; or worse, just stay in the refugee camp. They also question why, when their own lives are bad, should the government help foreigners and not them? I say to them, if you haven’t been to hell, then you don’t know jack about a bad life because life in the refugee camps is hell.

I was just days old when my parents fled a crumbling CIA base in Laos for the safety of a Thai refugee camp. I lived there until age six. Though it was better than being killed by the communists, it wasn’t like staying at the Hilton, or even Motel 6. My first memories were screams of the maimed and diseased refugees from the war. Every night as the sun set, the stench of decaying bodies rose into the hot air and permeated our makeshift huts. In our camp, people died daily by the dozens. Since Thailand has a hot tropical climate, the bodies did not last more than a few hours before they started to smell. The smell follows me even to this day.

We lived off of ration rice and canned meat from the United Nations and other nongovernmental organizations. It was just enough for us not to starve, but it never filled our stomachs. I was perpetually hungry as a youngster. My mother tells a story of me digging into a garbage can and picking out the green watermelon skins to eat after Thai soldiers had eaten the juicy red part. There must have been something primal in that act, a child knowing she needed to eat to live. I think I am overweight and overeat as an adult because I fear being that hungry again.

Growing up, I saw diseased children being born. A neighbor of ours had a baby boy when I was about four. He had a belly swollen like he had swallowed a balloon. From head to toe, red blisters reminiscent of tiny anthills dotted his yellow body. The baby got sicker until he was nothing but a human sack of bones and viscera. He never cried because he was too weak—not even a peep. One day, he died, and I was happy, so happy, because his suffering was over. There were other babies like him, with different diseases but the same demise. A few Western and Thai doctors worked for the camp, but people died anyway. There was no medicine and access to the doctors was limited. A few years ago, while at a Hmong New Year celebration, surrounded by crying babies, I had a flashback about the refugee camp. That is when I realized I was one of the sick children I pitied.

If Minnesotans are compassionate then they should allow the Wat Tham Krabok Hmong refugees to settle in Minnesota. Even welcome them with open arms. If the United States hadn’t come courting like an eager boyfriend, impregnating the Hmong people with war, then we would still be peaceful mountain farmers. The U.S. has an obligation to take care of us. If the U.S. doesn’t want to take care of refugees, then they should stop going to war with other nations and seek out diplomatic solutions. When the U.S. uses preemptive strikes to invade nations, then it assumes responsibility for those people. So critics who don’t want refugees invading “their” land and hoarding “their” riches should stop voting for people like Dubya Bush, who used terrorism and preemptive strikes as excuses to invade Iraq for oil.

Ka Vang was born in Laos and raised in St. Paul. A poet, playwright and community activist, she can be reached at kvangcolumn@hotmail.com.
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