Born in a Thai refugee camp, she's now a Twin Cities attorney

Attorney Mai Neng Moua was born in a Thai refugee camp.
Attorney Mai Neng Moua in her office in St. Paul, Minn., on July 12, 2017.
Doualy Xaykaothao | MPR News

The path that brought Mai Neng Moua to Minnesota began in a refugee camp in Thailand.

"The things that we go through, it's not necessarily something that people want to go through," said Moua, who is now an immigration attorney working in the Twin Cities.

She's an honorary chair of the World Refugee Day observances scheduled for Sunday in Minneapolis. Moua has come a long way from the Thai refugee camp called Ban Vinai, where she was born.

Her parents had fled Communist Laos on foot, through jungle and river. "And my mom, she wasn't very fortunate, so she actually got shot in her back, and in her arm," Moua said.

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The shooting, by Pathet Lao soldiers, scarred her mom's left arm and disabled that hand for life. Moua also has scars, on the back of her head. They are reminders that when she was born, conditions at Ban Vinai were so bad that a small infection became serious swelling, and later required head surgery.

For months the baby girl lived in tropical heat, with ice melting all around her head. Many mothers in that camp didn't leave the hospital with their children. Moua and her mom got lucky, she said, despite the "war, and famine, and the hardship that people have to endure."

"A lot of it is just trying to get to a safe place, because you're just running for your life. And that's really what it is ... Our [Hmong refugee] story is of fleeing the jungle, of hiding, of having to drug kids with opium so they don't cry in the middle of the night and give away the location."

Moua arrived in Minnesota in July 1982. She's now 35. Reflecting on her early years, she said her family faced racism and name-calling. Her home and her parents' cars were routinely vandalized.

"I remember one time, we woke up, we went outside, and our cars were damaged," she said. "The windows were broken. Someone climbed on top of the roof, and then jumped down on the hood of the vehicle, and you can see the footprint still on the vehicle. And we would call the police, and make a report, but nothing was done about it ... stuff like this happened all the time."

Moua is the oldest of eight siblings. She recalled that when she got home from high school she would immediately take a nap, then take care of the family and the house. Most nights, she'd study until about 2 a.m., the time when her father would get home from his late night shift as a machinist. Even today, her father doesn't know that she'd turn her lights back on after he went to bed, so she could study for two more hours.

"Being the oldest, it was always on my shoulders, always on me," she explained. "I had to be able to figure it out. I had to be able to make things work, because when my parents couldn't do it, they came to me. And when my siblings needed something, they came to me. And so my whole life has been, 'How do I figure this out? How do I make this work?'"

As soon as she could legally work, Moua had a job, taking restaurant shifts that nobody wanted, even double shifts.

"It wasn't fun working all of those crazy hours, but, it got me to where I needed to be," she said. "I was tired of the life that I was living. And having no money, having access to nothing, it was hard. And I knew I had to do better. And I knew that by doing better for myself, I'd be able to help my community and help my family."

In 2004, she graduated from the University of St. Thomas, and three years later she graduated from William Mitchell College of Law.

"It took everything that I had to be as disciplined as I was, to be able to graduate from law school at 25, and to be able to continue to work in the field," she said.

Now, in her role as an immigration attorney, she represents other refugees, many of whom fled from South or Central America, Southeast Asia or East Africa.

"I know that there's so much more that I could do, and there's so much more that I need to do," she said. "That's what continues to push me, to be trying to be better, so that someday, I can have an impact on those around me."

The Twin Cities World Refugee Day celebration will run from 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday at Loring Park. The event is organized by CAPI-USA, a south Minneapolis nonprofit serving immigrant and refugee communities.