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MPR News

1986: Visiting Ban Vinai refugee camp

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Women sewing at Ban Vinai refugee camp around 1980
Hmong women sewing in Ban Vinai refugee camp around 1980
Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

Original broadcast date: Oct. 7, 1986

MPR News reporter Tom Meersman reports from Ban Vinai, "a refugee camp in a picturesque valley in northern Thailand," as Hmong craftspeople, American doctors and U.N. officials live and work and navigate the artificial constructs life inside its boundaries.

Roughly 10,000 people in the camp said they would be willing to move to the United States, the U.N. representative at the camp tells Meersman. It is a new development in the attitude of the people living in the camps, the official says: "After several years' wait ... I think they have realized that it's not possible for them to go back."

Meersman reports:

For a few years, a proud people can sustain itself with the hope of returning home. But after a longer period of time, the dream fades. The hope sours. The culture withers. And everyone wants out. 

That's happening now in Ban Vinai. ... 

A new generation is coming of age here that cannot remember life before the camp, or that food comes from planting and growth and harvest, not from a weekly pickup of rations at some shack or concrete slab.

Hmong in Minnesota

Four decades ago, the first Hmong refugees began arriving in Minnesota. At that time, the number of Hmong could be counted in the dozens.  

Now the Twin Cities metro area is home to 64,000 Hmong people, making it the largest urban population of Hmong in the country. This story is one of many, culled from the MPR News radio archives, as we look back at the history of the Hmong people, both in Southeast Asia and Minnesota.