Hmong Minnesotans see parallels in Afghan refugee crisis

A man with his arms crossed stands in a room of Hmong artifacts.
Lee Pao Xiong, director of the Center for Hmong Studies at Concordia University in St. Paul on Thursday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

As Lee Pao Xiong of Fridley watched the deadly chaos at the Kabul airport on his television last month, his thoughts raced back to his own desperate escape from his homeland decades earlier.

“When I saw the evacuation of the Afghans, people fighting, scrambling to get on those flights, it brought back memories, and I was like, ‘Oh, here we go again,’” he said.

Xiong was 8 years old when his father, a military captain, fought to get him onto a departing plane at the Long Tieng military base in Laos. Like many in the Hmong community, Xiong's family was forced to flee North Vietnamese forces who were retaliating against Hmong people for helping the United States CIA fight a secret war against communism in Laos.

When he boarded an evacuation flight on May 13, 1975, Xiong said it became clear there wasn't enough room for everyone in his family.

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“My dad pushed me on, pushed my mom, my brother and myself. We get on the plane and they get left behind,” he said.

His dad finally caught another flight out of Laos later that day and Xiong's family spent the next year in a refugee camp before being resettled in rural Indiana.

Hmong families who didn't make it onto evacuation planes fled through the jungles in Laos where many died. Others drowned crossing the Mekong River on their way to Thailand.

A woman in a black shirt stands in a backyard.
Author Kao Kalia Yang was born in a refugee camp in Thailand. She is the author of "The Latehomecomer" and "Somewhere in an Unknown World."
Evan Frost | MPR News

"My family was one of the ones left behind, one of the ones that had to find a way out,” said Kao Kalia Yang, a writer who lives in St. Paul. She was born in Ban Vinai Refugee Camp of Thailand in 1980. The camp was filled with sickness and death, and people whose lives were in limbo.

Yang’s father, a song poet, would carry her on his back into the treetops so she could see a bigger world beyond the barbed wire fencing and soldiers with guns. He told her she was not a child of war, but a child of hope.

“I belong to a generation where we all carry the names of the dead and the hope is that we live a life that will make them proud,” she said. “There’s a simple reality that I think every refugee child carries: that we must live a life that is worthy of so many other lives who never made it.”

A collection of four family photos.
Kao Kalia Yang’s family in Ban Vinai Refugee Camp from 1981 to 1987
Courtesy of Kao Kalia Yang

When Yang was six, her family finally came to Minnesota and started a new life. It took time, but eventually her parents found work and saved enough money to buy a small home. They are doing well now, but memories of fleeing their homeland haunt her parents to this day.

“My mom and dad [up] to 2021, they still wake up in the morning [and recall dreaming] that they’ve been chased by North Vietnamese soldiers all night long. It happens all the time," she said.

Yang wrote a memoir about her refugee experience and another book detailing the collective stories of Minnesota's refugees. As first-hand accounts from Hmong elders are lost, she said it's important to document these stories so future generations won't forget their own history.

A woman in a white shirt stands in a courtyard.
Artist and a second-generation Hmong American Cydi Yang in Minneapolis on Monday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

“The history of my people — it’s just very sad and violent,” said Minneapolis artist Cydi Yang, 26, a second-generation Hmong American.

Talking about Hmong history makes her heart feel heavy, but Cydi says her family's story of survival is very much a part of who she is today.

“The people in my generation may be feeling a lot of things,” she said. “We do feel the effects of what happened to our parents and grandparents to where we are now and that we are connected to that story.”

For some, those connections are shifting as more details of their history emerge. Kao Kalia Yang says the refugee crisis in Afghanistan has inspired some of her relatives to share more about what happened to them decades ago.

“These are the stories that are coming forth for the very first time in my family,” she said. “So the story that is happening [in Afghanistan] is changing my own understanding of the stories I’ve inhabited all my life, the legacies that I stand in, in a very profound way.”

And while Afghan and Hmong refugees may have very different lived experiences, Yang says the lessons for society and U.S. foreign policy are the same.

“The Afghanistan story is the Afghanistan story. The Hmong story is the Hmong story. But they have a whole lot more in common that many of us are comfortable with,” said Yang. “Because history repeats itself. Because we are told to our faces, that whatever lessons may have been there, those lessons were not learned.”