Original broadcast date: June 22, 2004
MPR News reporter Toni Randolph joined Hmong families at the Twin Cities International Airport in June 2004 as they awaited the arrival of relatives and friends planning to resettle in Minnesota from refugee camps in Thailand.
Just before 8 p.m., a buzz rippled through the crowd waiting near the baggage carousels.
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More than 30 members of Chong Thao's family gathered, carrying American flags and flowers. They were there to greet Thao's two sisters and their families, who were arriving from a refugee camp in Thailand. They were smiling, chatting with other relatives and reporters.
The sense of anticipation built as the minutes passed. And finally, Thao and the rest of the family saw the sisters descend the escalator.
Thao burst into tears.
The hugs seemed endless — there were 11 new arrivals, including seven children. Thao's family is among the first to be resettled in the United States since the U.S. State Department made the decision last December to allow Hmong refugees to move here from a camp in Thailand. Fourteen others who also arrived yesterday went to different parts of the country.
Speaking through a translator, Thao's brother-in-law, Sxu Seng Xiong, said he could barely express his emotions.
"I'm happy and content beyond words and I'm so sorry it took me this many years to get here," he said. "We could have come here a lot earlier. That's the only thing I regret is we should have come a lot earlier and not after all these years."
Xiong's family had lived in a refugee camp north of Bangkok for more than a decade — a poverty-stricken area with no running water, no electricity and little food. But, again, through a translator, Xiong said he's ready to put his regrets behind him and begin a new life in St. Paul with his wife and seven children.
"The first thing for me is that I need to find a job so that I can feed and provide for my family," he said. "I know it will take a while to learn the language, but I'm willing to do anything to feed my family right now, gardening or something where I don't have to speak the language. The most important thing is for me to be able to provide for my family."
The process to help Xiong become self-sufficient begins today. He and the others are expected at International Institute, a refugee resettlement agency, for an orientation.
"We'll go through all their immigration papers to make sure that they're in order. We'll file papers for Social Security applications. We'll issue checks so that they can go right out and buy some clothing and items that they need," said John Borden, who works with the Institute. "And we'll discuss wheat their obligations are going to be, what our phone numbers are, ask them questions and answers about the community, and set up another appointment for a more detailed orientation."
The process must start quickly. The federal government gives each refugee assistance — but only for 90 days. After that, Xiong may be eligible for social services. But he'll also rely on family members here.
For now, he'll be living with Chang Thao and her family in a small house on St. Paul's east side. It's going to be crowded: The 11 new guests join the eight people who already live in the house. They've made provisions for Thao's children to move in with other relatives for a few weeks until she finds another place for the new arrivals to live.
But before any that happens, Thao prepared a huge welcome dinner for her relatives. They trekked to the house where even more family members were waiting to welcome them to America.
Hmong in Minnesota
The year 2015 marks the 40th anniversary of the Hmong people's arrival 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.