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From Laos to Milwaukee, Hmong Heritage Stays Strong in Charter School

Photo by Adam Ryan Morris
Milwaukee Magazine
Wearing her signature color, Chris Her-Xiong sits in front of the mural that represents the two worlds she hopes to connect at the Hmong American Peace Academy.

Among the many charter and specialty schools in Milwaukee is one that focuses on educating one particular immigrant ethnic group.  The Hmong American Peace Academy is remarkable for that reason.

However, the K-12 charter school is also remarkable because of its leader and founder Chris Her-Xiong, herself an immigrant from Laos. She was featured in an article in this month’s Milwaukee Magazine.

In 1975 when Her-Xiong was only ten years old, her parents decided to take their six children and flee to a refugee camp in Thailand in order to avoid the dangers of the imminent Communist take over. Her-Xiong and her family would live and struggle in a refugee camp for a year until they were able to come to the United States, thanks to a Dutch Reformed church family sponsorship in Iowa.

At 11 years old, Her-Xiong was in school learning how to hold a pencil, to write, to speak English and adapt to a new American way of life. She and a sister served as translators for their parents and worked throughout high school to contribute to family expenses. For Her-Xiong, their new life in America was a blended life of learning a new culture while maintaining family and cultural traditions.

"We had a unique combination of being bilingual and bicultural because we had a mom who wanted us to move forward with learning the language and the culture in the United States, whereas our father kept us tied to our traditions and our values so that we know who we are and where we're going," she says.

Her-Xiong's understanding of her Hmong culture and history became solidified when she discovered that the Hmong had been allies of the Americans during the Communist conflicts. Up until this revelation, she did not know why she and her family had to come to the United States.

Becoming a U.S. citizen in college and changing her first name to Chris only solidified her new mission to have a blended life of both American and Hmong cultures. She decided to become a teacher, but after visiting Thailand refugee camps, her new mission was to provide a quality education and a chance of success for the many Hmong refugee families in Milwaukee. Part of Her-Xiong's philosophy is that in order to succeed with the opportunities and freedoms given to you, you need to understand your heritage.

"The truth is...without heritage, we're nothing," she says. "If we know about our heritage, our culture, we can be productive citizens because it's important to know who you are and where you come from so that you can be a healthy individual and be productive to the community."

"I believe in the philosophy that if you educate a boy, you educate a person. But when you educate a girl, you educate the entire village. The school, to me, is educating the entire village." - Chris Her-Xiong

  Her-Xiong founded the  Hmong American Peace Academy (HAPA) almost 12 years ago, and today it educates 1,300 students (and their families) - with many more on the waiting list. Besides the school's emphasis on cultural education, Her-Xiong also stresses peaceful thinking and critical problem solving.

"It is the whole-hearted idea that education is the key to moving out of poverty," explains Her-Xiong. Wisconsin has the third-largest Hmong population in the country, and the many students HAPA serves come from families trying to work out of poverty and make a life for themselves - just as Her-Xiong's parents did for her.

This spring, the first class of HAPA students will graduate from college. For Her-Xiong, seeing her students succeed is extremely rewarding, but she also takes pride in living and teaching her students how to live a "blended" life.

Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.