The controversy surrounding the plight of immigrants and refugees – notably, the “caravan” of Central Americans seeking refugee status in the United States – continues to make daily headlines. Beyond the rhetoric, though, are real people with real stories. Refugees and immigrants have been fleeing violence, poverty and bleak futures in hopes of a better life in the United States for generations – and those journeys continue today.
Dr. Chia Vang’s journey as a Laotian refugee has taken a back seat to her work as a historian, capturing the voices of refugees and sharing her knowledge by authoring articles and books. But by sharing her own personal story at the “Refugee” StorySlam in November of 2017, Chia's hope is that it too will become part of the historical record.
In America, we tend to be deeply familiar with the narrative of the Vietnam War ending and soldiers coming home, a complex story itself. But for Chia’s Hmong family in Laos, the war and its aftermath had an immediate and lasting presence and Vietnam remained a dangerous place to live. Her family tried to leave multiples times and eventually managed to escape in 1979 when she was just 8 years old, joining the 100,000 Hmong refugees who also fled the war-torn country.
The Vang family ended up in St. Paul, Minn., where their story entered a new chapter as immigrants to a very different country and culture. They lived in an impoverished and dangerous neighborhood; here, they were on the lowest rung of the socioeconomic ladder. Later, when Chia was a teenager, she vowed that she wouldn’t let her starting point as an American define her future. Instead, she is defined by the powerful stories she is able to help tell – her own included:
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